- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2011

President Obama offered love and support to U.S. autoworkers last week in Michigan, praising their comeback and also touting his administration’s role in keeping them afloat when many Republican critics of the bailouts said the government should let the companies fail.

With South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at his side, Mr. Obama referenced a familiar hope-filled theme.

“President Lee knows what it’s like to go through tough times,” Mr. Obama said to workers gathered at a General Motors Co. factory that nearly closed in Michigan before the federal bailouts. “He knows what it’s like when folks have counted you out. And he knows what it’s like to make a big comeback.”

His Midwest message - to union labor and also to the blue-collar voters who elected him the first time - sets up a central campaign theme that he will rework in his re-election bid; namely, that staying the course despite difficulty ultimately leads to good results.

“As tough as times may be, I know there are better days ahead,” Mr. Obama added Sunday at an afternoon Washington dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial - an event that was one part musical tribute with Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, and one part a fiery pulpit sermon from civil rights pioneers.

Mr. Obama was cheerleader-in-chief for GM workers gathered at an assembly plant in Lake Orion, Mich., on Friday afternoon, where he lauded congressional passage of a new bilateral free-trade agreement with South Korea, which he predicts will create new jobs at home.

Even with the U.S. auto industry’s hopeful new rise, the jobs theme will be a harder sell in Michigan, home turf for Republican-primary front-runner Mitt Romney.

Mr. Romney has earned the ire of some because of his defense of his position that the U.S. auto industry should have been allowed into a structured bankruptcy, rather than a federal rescue. But if autoworkers are still stinging, others in Michigan are less bothered, according to polls showing that Mr. Romney, the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, is the only Republican hopeful running ahead of Mr. Obama there.

While Mr. Obama did not call him out by name, his pointed remarks referenced this political challenge ahead.

“When I took office, I was determined to rebuild this economy based on what this country has always done best - not just buying and consuming, but building, making things, selling those goods all around the world, stamped with three proud words: ‘Made in America.’ And that’s why one of the first decisions that I made as president was to save the U.S. auto industry from collapse,” Mr. Obama said to applause.

“There were a lot of politicians who said it wasn’t worth the time and wasn’t worth the money. In fact, there are some politicians who still say that. Well, they should come tell that to the workers here at Orion.”

All is not settled in Detroit, despite the optimism at GM and even as many in the industry and city are driving at a comeback. Ford workers are still voting on ratifying a new four-year contract in a shrinking market and a sagging economy. But because Ford declined federal help, their workers have higher expectations than those at GM and Chrysler and retain the right to strike.

In a good sign for the contract, the UAW said Sunday that more than 60 percent of the 5,282 workers at Local 600 in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn supported the agreement. The vote count nationwide now favors the contract by 57 percent to 43 percent, which means an overall “no” vote would require the few factories left to reject the contract by lopsided margins.

The union and Ford members have taken their contract talks onto Facebook, using the social-media site to argue the finer points of their proposed deal via the social network. Opening up what used to be hush-hush labor negotiations to the world signals a new era of transparency as the autoworkers air their gripes - and vote tallies - with the cyberworld via UAW Ford Department, where the union also directly responds to postings.

Argued Dean Wolfe, a Ford worker from McLouth, Kan., in a post to the site: “Do I think this is the best contract ever NO! But we need to wake up and look at the world today. Yes vote is a vote for our future.”

Urged John Cantrell of Oxford, Mich.: “Think about the negative impact a strike would have on you and your family.”

The president is counting upon union power and legwork to get out the vote as it did in the 2008 and for their unified support as he seeks new trade agreements that he argues will help bolster new jobs. At Thursday night’s state dinner honoring Mr. Lee, UAW President Bob King, as well as Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally sat at the head table along with Mr. Obama.

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