WASHINGTON — In two stops at Michigan auto plants — one including a rare test drive — President Barack Obama declared the federal rescue of domestic automakers a success Friday, delivering a message to “naysayers” who have criticized a robust government role.
“A lot of folks were skeptical,” Obama said, noting that he preferred government not be in the auto business. “But I believed that if each of us were willing to work and sacrifice in the short term — workers, management, creditors, shareholders, retirees, communities — it could mark a new beginning for a great American industry.”
The trip is part of a White House effort to highlight what it sees as a major economic success story, though it played out against the backdrop of disappointing news of slower-than-expected economic growth.
The message Obama brought Friday at Chrysler and General Motors plants is one he’ll repeat next week on a visit to a Ford plant in Chicago.
“Last year, many thought this industry would keep losing jobs, as it had for the better part of the past decade,” the president said. “Today, U.S. automakers have added 55,000 jobs since last June, the strongest job growth in more than 10 years in the auto industry.”
Obama received a thunderous welcome at each stop to greet more than a thousand plant workers and labor officials who benefited from the administration’s decision to spend $60 billion as part of its rescue plan. Many workers, including at least one who had voted for Obama’s 2008 Republican opponent, John McCain, credited the investment with saving their jobs.
“We needed this, to keep the city going,” said Wanda Carlisle, a 16-year veteran of the Chrysler plant.
At a stop at the GM facility in Hamtramck, Obama made a campaign-style appeal to workers, saying that he had stood with them, while Republicans would have let their jobs disappear.
“We made the decision to step in. And the reason I did that was because I had confidence in you. I had faith in you. Because I believe that the American worker is the best worker on earth,” he said.
At a White House briefing Thursday, the president’s auto industry advisers asserted that 1 million jobs were saved because of the government’s actions to save GM and Chrysler. Ford Motor Co., meanwhile, benefited with only limited direct aid because dependent industries, like parts suppliers, were able to remain open.
“I think there’s no question that the president’s intervention helped the entire industry,” said Ron Bloom, a senior Treasury Department adviser.
All three U.S. auto companies have posted profits this year.
The administration message is meant to counter the drumbeat of criticism from Republicans and conservatives about excessive government intervention.
“I’m not sure he realizes that his tax, borrow and spend policies will probably prolong Detroit’s recovery,” said Saul Anuzis, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party.
Obama’s second stop included a rare presidential fete — an opportunity to get behind the wheel and drive, if only for a few seconds. Obama, very slowly, test drove the new Chevy Volt being produced at the plant.
Michael A. Memoli/The Associated Press