Auto industry's resurgence turns into political asset for President Obama
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
The resurgence of the U.S. auto industry is quickly turning into a political asset for President Barack Obama.
Obama, speaking this morning to a crowd of 4,000 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, was not bashful about highlighting the auto industry's comeback.
"We placed our bets on the American auto industry and today the American auto industry is back," he said. "Jobs are coming back."
Obama's comments come as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are collectively expected to add several thousand jobs in Michigan and throughout the U.S. in 2012.
That comes on top of thousands of jobs they've added since the implosion of the industry in 2009, when GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy backed by $50 billion in funds from the federal government.
Michigan's manufacturing sector is expected to account for about 27.3 percent of the state's new jobs over the next two years, according to a forecast in November by U-M economists. The sector, which added 19,000 jobs in 2010 and 25,000 in 2011, is expected to add 21,000 over the next two years.
Although the auto bailouts weren't altogether popular at first, the Obama administration now believes that the bailouts will prove to be a valuable political tool.
"Some politicians were willing to let this die," Obama said at the Al Glick Field House. "We said no — we believe in the workers of this state. I believe in American ingenuity."
Obama's comments reflect a "very thinly veiled" slam at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said Michael Traugott, a University of Michigan political scientist.
"He declared it a non-campaign event so that expenses would be covered by the White House," Traugott said of Obama's appearance in Ann Arbor. "But once the (Republican presidential) primary started — even back into the fall — he’s moved into campaign mode."
For Obama, Romney looms as a significant threat to win Michigan if he secures the Republican presidential nomination. Although an EPIC-MRA poll released Friday by the Detroit Free Press indicated that Obama leads Romney by about 8 percentage points in a hypothetical Michigan matchup, political analysts say Romney could win the state, which would deal a huge blow to Obama's re-election prospects.
But in Michigan, Romney will be forced to defend a New York Times editorial titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" that he published during the auto crisis.
Offering a preemptive retort, Romney released an open letter to the president this morning asserting that Obama's "promises now ring hollow."
"If you have brought new ideas to Michigan for creating jobs, why have you waited three years to unveil them? Have you suddenly had a revelation, or is it because 2012 is an election year? Whatever the case, what you are offering Michigan now is too little, too late," Romney wrote.
He added: "What Michigan needs, and what the country needs, is not four more years of economic mismanagement and failed leadership, but a fundamental change in direction. I was born and raised in Michigan at a time when our state was the pride of America. With new leadership, Michigan can feel that pride once more."
Without mentioning Romney, Obama portrayed himself as a leading proponent of manufacturing in a state where manufacturing is still king.
"Part of my argument — part of the argument of Michigan’s congressional delegation — is that when manufacturing does well, the entire economy does well," he said. "The service sector does well if manufacturing’s doing well. So we’ve got to make sure America isn’t just buying stuff but we’re also selling stuff all around the world — products stamped with those three proud words: 'Made in America.'"
Traugott said Obama's message on manufacturing would not just appeal to the Rust Belt.
"I don’t think that any major world economy can ignore manufacturing as a foundational element, so I think that’s a theme that plays all across the country," he said.
Much of Obama's speech was recycled from his State of the Union address Tuesday, when he reiterated his support for higher taxes on Americans making more than $250,000 a year.
Although congressional Republicans are likely to block efforts to raise taxes on the richest citizens, Obama's message found a receptive audience in Ann Arbor.
Obama's focus on college affordability reflects a "populist theme because college is expensive," Traugott said.
Much of the blame for rising tuition falls to reduced support from state governments.
"The federal government actually has a limited degree of freedom in influencing colleges," Traugott said. "But he does have some levers that he can pull."