Preaching to a choir of union supporters and taking jabs at Republican challenger Mitt Romney on the day of Michigan’s primary, President Obama told the annual gathering of the United Auto Workers on Tuesday that the government’s $85 billion auto bailout succeeded “because I believed in you.”
“I placed my bet on American workers,” Mr. Obama said at the UAW convention in Washington. “And I’d make that same bet again any day of the week. Because three years later, that bet is paying off for America.”
Before the president began to speak, the crowd of about 1,600 auto workers chanted “Four more years!” They interrupted his speech frequently with cheers.
Although the president didn’t mention Mr. Romney by name, he clearly enjoyed criticizing the former Massachusetts governor who wrote an op-ed piece in 2008 that bore the headline, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
“Some even said we should ‘let Detroit go bankrupt,’ ” Mr. Obama said of bailout that began in 2008 under former President George W. Bush. “Think about what that choice would have meant for this country. If we had turned our backs on you, if America had thrown in the towel, GM and Chrysler wouldn’t exist today.”
Mr. Romney, the target of critical Democratic ads in Michigan as voters headed to the polls in the crucial GOP primary there, has said he wanted the ailing auto companies to go through bankruptcy proceedings, reorganize and emerge stronger. And he criticized the campaign of GOP rival Rick Santorum Tuesday for urging Michigan’s Democrats to vote in the GOP primary.
“It’s outrageous to see Rick Santorum team up with the Obama people and go out after union labor in Detroit and try to get them to vote against me,” Mr. Romney said on TV’s “Fox and Friends.”
“Look, we don’t want Democrats deciding who our nominee is going to be, we want Republicans deciding who our nominee is going to be.”
Mr. Obama is working hard in his re-election campaign to promote union manufacturing jobs, including a demand that Congress approve portions of a $447 billion stimulus plan to create more factory jobs. The strategy has electoral implications not only for manufacturing battleground states like Michigan and Ohio, but in communities elsewhere dependent on the vast network of auto parts suppliers.
Taxpayers could lose about $14 billion from the auto bailout, former Obama auto czar Steven Rattner said in December. The final figure will depend on what price the Treasury Department sells its 25 percent stake in GM, purchased at $33 per share. It was trading Tuesday at slightly more than $26 per share.
The president defended the taxpayer-funded bailout, and the deals that gave priority to unions over bondholders of the auto companies. The UAW now owns 41.5 percent of Chrysler and 10.3 percent of General Motors.
Mr. Obama criticized the bailout’s critics: “They’re saying that the problem is that you, the workers, made out like bandits in all of this, that saving the American auto industry was just about paying back unions. Really? Even by the standards of this town, that’s a load of you-know-what.”
He said about 700,000 retirees saw a reduction in the health care benefits, and many workers saw reduced hours or wages scaled back.
“You want to talk about values? Hard work — that’s a value. Looking out for one another — that’s a value. The idea that we’re all in it together — that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper — that is a value,” the president said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president’s speech was “not at all” a campaign event, but that the debate over the auto bailout was legitimate policy issue.
The president also pledged to buy a Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid, when he leaves office.
“I got to get inside a brand-new Chevy Volt fresh off the line,” Mr. Obama said about a recent visit to a Detroit Chevrolet factory. “Even though Secret Service wouldn’t let me drive it. But I liked sitting in it. It was nice. I’ll bet it drives real good. And five years from now when I’m not president anymore, I’ll buy one and drive it myself.”