DETROIT — Out to convince voters that the bailout of the U.S. auto industry has been a success — and to build buzz for its controversial poster child, Chevy's Volt electric car — President Barack Obama on Friday drove a car publicly for the first time in more than three years and implored consumers, "Don't bet against the American people."
Obama's much-hyped tours of Chrysler's Jefferson North facility in Detroit and a GM plant in neighboring Hamtramck had a personal feel. The stops also provided an emotional boost for the president on a day when discouraging new gross domestic product numbers stirred more concerns about the nation's economic recovery.
Hundreds of mostly African-American supporters lined Conner Avenue, its many dilapidated industrial structures and quick-cash-for-homes billboards signs of Michigan's economic pain.
Workers at the two plants embraced Obama, many crediting him with saving their jobs. His first new-car purchase, he told workers at the Chrysler plant, was what they make there, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. He told GM workers at the plant where the Volt — soon to be sold for $41,000 — is being made that their plant also manufactured the Cadillac in which he now rides in motorcades. He admitted that the Secret Service had souped up his model a bit.
At each plant, he signed his name in permanent marker on the hood of a vehicle.
From a personal standpoint, however, perhaps the most enjoyable moment for the president came in the early afternoon, when, after an uneasy nod from Secret Service agents, he gingerly stepped into the driver's seat of one of the first Volts, a black one, buckled himself in and haltingly drove no more than 10 feet, declaring the ride "pretty smooth."
It was only the second time since Obama accepted Secret Service protection as a candidate in 2007 that he'd driven, aides said. The other occasion came off-camera within the past few months, when he drove a Dodge Charger at a Secret Service training facility. For a politician who's openly pined for the days when he could move about like an ordinary person, it was a stolen pleasure.
Americans' skepticism about bigger government in the wake of the $862 billion economic stimulus and Obama's health care overhaul could hurt Democrats in the fall elections, but the president and his aides see a window now to reframe how voters interpret the effectiveness of their big-spending interventions.
New data on the auto bailouts is providing some of that opportunity. Obama touted statistics that show 55,000 jobs added in the year since GM and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy, as well as projections that the federal government will recoup at least the $60 billion spent for auto-industry relief on his watch, if not the $85 billion spent since the Bush administration.
The president also said the federal intervention had saved more than a million jobs and an industry that's central to America's sense of self-worth. "We would have lost what has been the heart and soul of American manufacturing, what has built a middle class not just here in Detroit but all throughout the Midwest, what has made us proud and has been a symbol of our economic power," he said Friday.
He dismissed critics of the bailout as the "just-say-no crowd in Washington." He noted that GM, Chrysler and Ford a year later all are posting profits, and he told the Volt makers that "you're producing the cars of the future."
Still, the roughly 334,000 jobs the industry lost in the year before it emerged from bankruptcy have had a severe impact on the work force, and the long-term comeback plan for American carmakers is uncertain.
There are many critics of the Volt, as well, who say it's too expensive and insufficiently advanced to compete. "GM's Electric Lemon" was the headline on a piece in The New York Times' opinion section Friday.
However, the Chrysler plant Obama toured added a second shift recently; the GM plant skipped a planned summer shutdown to keep up production. "The trend lines are good," the president said.
Robert Allen, 62, an electrician with 25 years at GM, said he'd voted for Republican John McCain in 2008 and still didn't consider himself an Obama supporter. He thinks there's too much big government in the president's policies, especially the health care overhaul.
However, Allen said the auto bailout was necessary. "It's kept a lot of plants open," he said.
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