LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- The man leading the White House effort to help cities that depend on the auto industry said Wednesday that he "gets it" when it comes to understanding Michigan's economic plight.
Noting that his wife's grandfather, father, uncle and brother have ties to the Michigan auto industry, Ed Montgomery joked that "if I don't get it, I'll get it over the head."
But Montgomery turned serious when asked by reporters what help he could bring the beleaguered state, which leads the nation with its 12 percent unemployment rate and stands to see tens of thousands of additional jobs lost as domestic automakers struggle to survive.
"The beginning step in rectifying this is to understand what's needed," he told reporters after spending hours with Gov. Jennifer Granholm and her economics team earlier Wednesday. "My obligation is to go back to Washington to convene the agencies. ... to see what we can come up with."
Appointed just two days ago by President Barack Obama's administration as the White House director of recovery for auto communities and workers, Montgomery said he's looking at ways the federal government can help through promoting battery technology for new hybrid cars and by providing money for weatherization, job training, transportation, light rail and other areas.
"We have to move, and we have to move in a comprehensive way," he said. "That's my focus, is how do I help people who are hurting?"
Montgomery headed to Detroit, where he talked for about an hour Wednesday evening with Mayor Ken Cockrel and his aides about city needs and concerns.
Cockrel told reporters he found Montgomery to be smart, caring and willing to listen.
Detroit's carmakers can count on Obama's backing, the mayor added, but the president expects them to take the lead in overcoming the present crisis.
"It's pretty clear that the auto industry has a friend in the White House," Cockrel said. "But it's also clear that friendship won't be taken advantage of."
Montgomery's job could grow increasingly critical as the federal government urges General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC to downsize more quickly to regain their financial footing during an economic slump that has them relying on federal loans to stay afloat.
Obama on Monday gave GM 60 days to further restructure and Chrysler 30 days to sign a deal with Fiat or face possible bankruptcy. On Wednesday, GM reported its March sales fell 45 percent over the same period a year ago, while Chrysler said its sales were down 39 percent.
Granholm said Michigan's plight is unique because it has so many autoworkers compared to other states and thus is feeling the brunt of the domestic automakers' troubles more than any other state.
She noted Michigan is on track to lose 760,000 jobs by the end of next year compared with the number of jobs it had in 2001, more than three times the 230,000 jobs lost after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
"The impact on our communities is devastating," Granholm said Wednesday on the Michigan Public Radio Network. "We need a response from the federal government that is similar to that."
She told reporters that it appears the federal government finally is listening. She called Montgomery's visit "a very hopeful sign."
Michigan Republican Chairman Ron Weiser said in a release that he was pleased the Obama administration was committed to helping struggling auto workers. But he added he was concerned that neither Montgomery nor members of the president's automotive task force had any experience working directly in the auto industry.
Montgomery, who's from Pittsburgh, taught economics at Michigan State University in the late 1980s and served at the UpJohn Institute for Employment. He currently is dean of the University of Maryland's College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and was deputy secretary and chief operating officer at the U.S. Department of Labor under former President Bill Clinton.
He earned his bachelor's degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1976 and holds master's and doctoral degrees in economics from Harvard University.
Associated Press reporter David N. Goodman in Detroit contributed to this story.