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Commentary: Governor Snyder

Michigan begins the first work week of 2011 with a new governor in charge. He’s a man whose name most of us didn’t know a year ago, but whom we elected by a landslide in November.

We still don’t know exactly how Richard D. Snyder plans to make this state competitive again. But we do know this:

Everyone in Michigan - liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats and independents -- needs to hope his administration is an amazing success.

For if he fails, we may never fully recover. Michigan, our Michigan, could end up as a Midwestern West Virginia, an old industry state with an economy left behind by modern times.

I read and listened to the new governor’s inauguration speech, which he gave on an unseasonably balmy New Year’s Day. I’ve heard a lot of these speeches. Snyder’s wasn’t notable for the grandeur of his rhetoric. It takes a while to get used to his somewhat nasal speaking delivery.

Nevertheless, it was one of the best and most candid speeches of this kind, a speech that actually read better than it sounded. He appropriately did his best to make us believe we can build a better future. But he didn’t sugarcoat where we are now.

Candidly, he told us that “the last part of the industrial era has been a period of decline in our state,” a period that has lasted decades. Our population has shrunk so much relative to the rest of the nation that we’ve lost five congressmen in recent years.

The industry that made Michigan rich and prosperous has  dwindled, and yet we and our politicians have done little about it except fight among ourselves. Now, we have no choice:

We have to fix things, or else. And that, Snyder knows, “will not be simple, or easy.“ It “will require shared sacrifices from all of us,” and means many of us “will have to take a step back in the short term to move us all forward together in the long term.”

That’s not as eloquent as Winston Churchill telling wartime Britain that he could offer nothing but “blood, tears, toil and sweat.” But it was refreshing. Snyder seems to be equal parts visionary and consummate pragmatist.

Michigan is broken, he has concluded, and needs a lot more than a tuneup. It’s time for a whole new model. I thought Rick Snyder would talk about the need for all of us to become innovative and entrepreneurial, and he did some of that. But he also said this:

“The underlying key to success is to change our culture. We need to move from negative to positive. We need to stop looking in the rearview mirror, and look towards the future.”

The question is, how do we get there? Governor Snyder is facing a deficit of nearly two billion dollars.

Within a few weeks, we’ll learn how he intends to plug the gap.

He is widely expected to move to cut public employee benefits and pensions. But I found it encouraging when he told his audience: “The reinvention of Michigan must not leave anyone behind.”

None of this will be easy, as Snyder surely knows. But if he succeeds, our best days, and his, may be yet to come.

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