- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The auto industry is providing President Obama a good-news story automakers are making money, plants are hiring and the taxpayers’ stake in General Motors is dwindling. Things are looking up for the president in assembly-line country just not the voting.

Mr. Obama, fresh from claiming vindication after last week’s GM public stock offering, is joining Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Tuesday at a Chrysler auto plant in Kokomo, Ind. This month in Indiana, Democrats lost a Senate seat and two House seats and were driven into the minority in the state legislature.

While Mr. Obama is embarking on a mission to change the public’s mood, the story is much the same elsewhere in auto manufacturing states: The industry might be on the mend, but neither Mr. Obama nor the Democrats are reaping the benefits.

“You could talk to people in Michigan who would say, ‘Yes, I work at GM, my job was saved because the administration saved GM, but you know what, I’m voting Republican because I’m mad about the economy,”’ said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who has polled in the state for departing Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm.

“And, you know, there were lots of those people,” he said.

It’s a sign of the enormous challenge facing Mr. Obama over the next two years. Unless the economy shows dramatic improvement, incremental gains such as stabilizing the auto industry or recouping much of the money used to bail out giant financial firms are not big political winners.

If that weren’t enough of a challenge, Mr. Obama was awakened at 3:55 a.m. Tuesday with news that North Korea had launched an artillery attack on a South Korean island, escalating the communist nation’s already provocative acts. The event threatened to overshadow the White House’s carefully planned economic theme of the day.

Senior White House adviser David Axelrod said in an interview Monday that the White House understood Americans’ frustrations over the economy. “Until we get that momentum going to the point where we can fill in that huge hole the recession created, people are going to be frustrated,” he said.

And while Mr. Obama and his aides have repeatedly asserted that without the government’s intervention the economy would be in a sorrier state, few in the White House would argue that that’s a winning political sound bite. As Mr. Obama himself said on “60 Minutes” earlier this month, “The hardest argument to make in politics is: Things would have been a lot worse if we hadn’t done all those, taken all these steps.”

GM has given the administration some bragging rights, at least for now.

The company launched one of the largest initial public offerings in U.S. history last week, more than a year after it was pushed into bankruptcy by the Obama administration and two years after the Bush administration propped it up with billions of dollars in loans. All in all, the taxpayers’ stake totaled about $50 billion.

But the auto rescue came amid bailouts of big banks and financial companies interventions that Republicans attacked and many in the public resented.

As signs of the auto industry’s recovery began to emerge last summer, Mr. Obama traveled to GM, Ford and Chrysler plants in Michigan and Illinois to highlight local success stories.

But that did nothing to ease the voter anger that was spreading.

In Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois all states that Obama carried in his 2008 presidential run Democrats suffered major losses. Michigan and Ohio elected Republican governors and placed control of the state legislatures in GOP hands. Illinois filled Mr. Obama’s former Senate seat with a Republican.

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