LAKE ORION, Mich. — Amid a gleaming high-tech production line and sparkling new vehicles under construction, President Obama joined South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Friday to tour a Detroit-area General Motors Co. plant that is manufacturing a subcompact car featuring collaborative engineering with the East Asian nation.
Mr. Obama, following a night of pomp at a White House state dinner in Washington to honor Mr. Lee and to celebrate congressional passage of a major bilateral free-trade pact, arrived in the Motor City area Friday morning along with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and United Auto Workers President Bob King to offer a pep talk to cheering auto workers, calling the U.S. industry's comeback "a testimony to the American spirit."
Sporting a navy Detroit Tigers baseball cap, Mr. Lee, a factory worker who rose to helm the Korean auto giant Hyundai, joined Mr. Obama and auto and labor executives in this northwestern Detroit suburb to tout the free trade deal and to assure nervous workers the pact would not mean job losses for the industry from new foreign competition.
"The FTA will not take away any of our jobs, rather it will create more jobs for you and your family and it is going to protect jobs," he said, in translated remarks he delivered in Korean. "This is the pledge I give you today."
Mr. Obama echoed the sentiment.
"Here in the U.S. this trade agreement will support at least 70,000 American jobs," said Mr. Obama, calling the agreement a "win-win for both countries."
"It will increase exports and boost our economy more than our last nine trade agreements combined," the president contended.
The jobs message resonated at the downsized Orion facility, which now hosts about 1,750 workers and nearly closed when a federal bailout helped save both GM and Chrysler from bankruptcy. Since 2009, however, the plant has made a comeback with the Chevy Sonic, a new subcompact car that has been exported around the word, and the Buick Verano, a compact car that is built on the same platform as Chevy's Cruze but is not yet in full production.
Mr. Obama, who sat with Mr. Lee in a new red Sonic and joked that his Secret Service guard had taken away the keys, praised its legroom "even for a pretty tall guy like me."
Republicans such as presidential candidate Mitt Romney and some economists have condemned the taxpayer-funded auto industry bailout, but Mr. Obama was in a room full of friends at the unionized auto plant Friday.
"We appreciate everything you've done for the auto industry," one woman told him. "I was here in 2009. Everybody was so sad."
Mr. Obama, speaking later to the crowd, also noted that taxpayers were being repaid on their investment and said the government help has paid off. He said Chrysler and GM are both hiring again after shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs in recent years.
Wesley Council, 27, a materials engineer from Farmington Hills who returned home to work at Orion after a time working for Hyundai in Alabama, called the president's visit a positive thing for morale and for his city. Of the partnership with nations like South Korea: "I think it's already helping," he says. "Here, you can already see it happening."
The trade agreement partnership with Korea is expected in its first year to raise U.S. exports by an estimated $10.9 billion and raise imports by $6.9 billion from South Korea. Unlike many in the labor movement, the UAW supported the deal in hopes it will open up Seoul's auto market to American manufacturers. It is expected to enhance jobs for both nations and help small businesses, Mr. Lee said in remarks Wednesday in Washington to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Michigan, which last went for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988, has become tougher political territory for Mr. Obama since his 2008 win here. It now trends more purple than blue, with a GOP-led legislature pushing back hard on labor with new right-to-work legislation proposals, and a maverick Republican governor deeply invested in creating a new work culture — far removed from the politics of the past dominated by powerful unions and a heavy manufacturing sector.
Polls in Michigan show a lukewarm, if not divided reception for the president. According to an Epic-MRA poll conducted from Oct. 1-4 of 1,000 voters statewide, just 38 percent of Michiganders view Mr. Obama positively.
SaidTom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, "What we've found for Obama all year in Michigan is that he's a lot less popular there than he was in 2008, and he'd have a pretty close contest with Mitt Romney. If the GOP nominates anybody else, though, he should easily win the state again."
Mr. Romney, the native son whose father was a popular Michigan governor, also has his work cut out for him here. He earned the ire of some in the auto industry for his position that they should have been given a structured bankruptcy and not a federal bailout, a point Mr. Obama will likely seize upon in his bid for a second term.
Mr. Obama has visited Michigan nine times since he was elected and Vice President Joe Biden will make his sixth visit to the state next week. As Mr. Obama toured the Lake Orion plant, protestors from Occupy Detroit planned their own march in the city's downtown area to call the president's attention to the economic issues.
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