Speaking in Detroit on Friday, President Barack Obama heralded the recent turnaround for U.S. automakers, arguing that thousands of jobs and increased production vindicate his unpopular decision to bailout the industry.
With Americans facing a still-limping economy and potentially pivotal congressional elections in three months, Obama is seizing on the positive new trends in the auto industry as evidence of broader economic good news. He launched an intensive campaign to highlight the story as a concrete area of improvement with direct ties to his administration’s actions.
“This industry is growing stronger,” Obama declared from the floor of Chrysler’s Jefferson North plant, which recently added a second shift of production to the tune of about 1,100 jobs. “You are proving the naysayers wrong.”
From here, where the president greeted workers making Jeep Grand Cherokees and sat in a mostly finished model, Obama was going to nearby Hamtramck to visit a GM plant planning to assemble the Chevrolet Volt rechargeable electric car. That factory is one of nine the automaker will keep open during the usual two-week summer shutdown.
Then, next week, the president will visit the Chicago plant where Ford builds the Taurus sedan and plans to assemble a new Explorer sport utility vehicle. Unlike the other automakers, Ford didn’t receive the government’s financial help. Hoping to ratchet up public notice further, the White House also had the administration’s top auto officials brief reporters Thursday.
Following the government-led bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, the companies have shown signs of improvement. Obama said that all three U.S. automakers are “operating at a profit, for the first time in six years.”
But the claim that all three Detroit automakers are making money isn’t quite true. GM and Ford are making money, but Chrysler has yet to post a net profit since leaving bankruptcy protection in June of last year.
The company had a first-quarter net loss of $197 million, but it made $143 million before interest and taxes. Chrysler’s last full-year profit was in 2005, when it made $1.8 billion.
Obama said he understands why many in the country were skeptical — or outright opposed — to a massive infusion of cash into the beleaguered industry, and acknowledged that “the politics of it weren’t good.”
“Listen this was a hard decision,” he said. “I didn’t want government to get into the auto industry — I’ve got enough to do.”
In a report on the status of the auto industry, the White House said failing to intervene would have led to the loss of nearly 1.1 million jobs. The auto industry has added 55,000 jobs in the year since the automotive bankruptcies, making it the strongest year of job growth in the industry since 1999.
Obama pointed to several signs of progress: Plans by GM and Chrysler to skip the typical summer shutdown of several auto plants to meet demand for hot-selling vehicles and the addition of shifts at GM, Chrysler and Ford Motor Co. plants.
White House officials estimate that Detroit automakers could add 11,000 new jobs before the end of 2010.
The administration also says the government is on track to recover all the taxpayer money it poured into GM, Chrysler, auto lenders and suppliers to avert a near-certain industrywide meltdown.
However, the White House said that proclamation referred only to the $60 billion spent by the Obama administration, not the additional $25 billion funneled to the industry in 2008 under the Bush administration. The most recent government estimate found that taxpayers will lose $24.3 billion on the auto bailout.
GM has repaid $6.7 billion that the government considered loans, with the remaining $43.3 billion converted into a 61 percent stake in the company. GM is expected to conduct an initial public offering of shares in the company later this year, a move that could help the government recoup some of its investment.
United Auto Workers President Bob King said in a statement Thursday that GM would file paperwork in mid-August to start the process of selling stock to the public.
Chrysler received about $15 billion in government help and was placed under control of Italian automaker Fiat as part of its bankruptcy. The company has repaid about half of the $4 billion loan portion of its aid and is considering a public stock offering sometime in 2011.
Obama will stop at three auto plants over the next several days, visiting General Motors and Chrysler factories in on Friday and a Ford facility in Chicago next Wednesday.
Sereta Dillard, who works at the Chrysler assembly plant on Jefferson Ave., was not about to miss this VIP visit. “I’ve worked here six years. But as a result of his bail out plan, I was rolled over from a temporary employee to a full-time employee. So I’m very excited. I’m thankful, and I’m waiting to see him,” said Dillard.
Dillard said she has been pondering what she’d say to our nation’s leader if given he chance. “I’m so elated about getting the opportunity to see him. I don’t know exactly what I would say,” said Dillard.
Dillard disagreed with people a year ago who said that the government should not bail-out Chrysler and GM.
“You know, it’s always good to have an uncle or auntie. Somebody to call on to get some help. And the government was that uncle or auntie,” said Dillard.
Many of Chrysler’s blue-collar workers, like Dillard, feel good about the federal loan that they say saved their jobs.
“I hope the cars we’re building succeed and everybody has a job,” one worker told WWJ.
Other auto workers are sensitive about the media calling the loan a “bailout” because they say Chrysler is working hard to pay back the federal government.
“We’ve got a good product. We’re excited to get it out there and we want to move forward,” another worker said.
(Copyright 2010 WWJ. All Rights Reserved. The Accociated Press contributed to this report)