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 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, about 30 miles north of Detroit, had been shuttered before the federal government stepped in.
"One of the first decisions that I made as president was to save the U.S. auto industry from collapse," Obama said.
"An American auto industry that's more profitable and competitive than it's been in years made it worth it."
The 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 long-delayed new trade pact would help turn that around. The auto provisions hung up the deal's completion, until negotiators overcame U.S. auto industry complaints that previous efforts at a deal failed to do enough to lift South Korea's barriers to U.S.-made cars.
"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."
GM began building the Sonic last year following an agreement with the United Autoworkers that allowed the company to pay some workers lower wages that are more competitive with those in GM's foreign plants. The Sonic's predecessor, the Chevrolet Aveo, was built in South Korea.
Obama won Michigan by a 57-41 margin in 2008 but could face difficulties in the state next year, especially if his general election opponent is Romney, whose father was Michigan governor.
In a Republican debate this week, Romney said he disagreed with the Obama administration's handling of the auto rescue. Democrats have pounced on a New York Times opinion piece written by Romney in November 2008, as GM and Chrysler were seeking federal bailouts. Romney, at the time, wrote that the companies needed to restructure themselves and said if they received a federal bailout, "you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye."
The trip also served as an opportunity for Obama to illustrate his special relationship with the South Korean leader. Inviting Lee to the U.S. heartland was an unusual addition to the itinerary of a high-profile state visit, and once there, both leaders took off their jackets, rolled up their sleeves and, wearing nearly identical steel blue ties, posed for pictures inside a shiny red Sonic. Obama was behind the wheel and Lee in the passenger's seat.
When Lee got out he turned to his hosts and asked in English: "Special discount?"
Replied Obama: "It's already a good bargain."
The South Korea could expand U.S. exports by $11 billion and support 70,000 jobs, according to the White House. Along with new deals with Colombia and Panama, the agreements would lower or eliminate tariffs that American exporters face in the three countries.
Many labor groups opposed the deals, but the agreements won wide bipartisan support in part because their passage was linked to legislation to extend aid to workers displaced by foreign competition.
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.