ORION TOWNSHIP, Mich. — President Barack Obama cast himself as a savior of the U.S. auto industry Friday, standing in a once-shuttered Michigan assembly plant with the president of South Korea to boast of a new trade deal and the auto bailout he pushed through Congress. "The investment paid off," Obama declared.
At his side, South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak donned a Detroit Tigers cap to assure U.S. auto workers that the new U.S.-South Korea trade pact wouldn't steal away American jobs. "This is the pledge that I give you," said Lee, acknowledging the suspicion with which U.S. labor unions view trade agreements.
In a rare political spectacle of a visiting head of state on a field trip outside Washington with the U.S. president, both sounding boosterish about American industry, Lee said the trade pact "will create more jobs for you and your family. And it is going to protect your jobs."
The trip took Obama to a state that is key to his re-election hopes and where unemployment is the third highest in the country. Obama has been paying special attention to Michigan; his most recent visit was to deliver a Labor Day speech in Detroit.
But in singling out the auto industry for special attention, Obama and his advisers believe he has a winning issue that stretches beyond Michigan and into other Midwestern states where auto makers have a sizable footprint. At the same time, Obama and his advisers say the trade deal and the bailout were hard-fought victories for the president that portray him as a tough leader.
Obama credited the $80 billion bailout he pushed through Congress two years ago with reviving the once-shuttered assembly plant and keeping General Motors and Chrysler from financial ruin.
"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," Obama said in an apparent shot at one of the leading challengers for his job, Republican Mitt Romney. "Well, they should come tell that to the workers here."
General Motors Co.'s Orion assembly plant makes subcompact Chevrolet Sonics with Korean parts, and in Lee, who once headed Hyundai in South Korea, Obama brought a foreign guest familiar with the industry and head of a country whose exports have battered the U.S. car industry. In 2010, U.S. automakers exported fewer than 14,000 cars to South Korea, while South Korea exported 515,000 cars to the U.S., according to congressional staff.
Obama and Lee said the new trade pact would help turn that around.
"I want to especially thank the people of Detroit for proving that despite all the work that lies ahead, this is a city where a great American industry is coming back to life and the industries of tomorrow are taking root," Obama said, "and a city where people are dreaming up ways to prove all the skeptics wrong and write the next proud chapter in the Motor City's history."