Obama’s visit to a Chrysler plant in politically important Ohio came after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employers in May added the fewest jobs in eight months — a meager 54,000 — and the unemployment rate inched up to 9.1 percent.
Normally Obama talks about the monthly jobs numbers the day they’re released, but he never mentioned them directly Friday — an omission immediately noted by Republicans who see the economy as Obama’s greatest weakness heading into the 2012 campaign.
The president focused instead on the turnaround in the auto industry and how the government has recouped much more money than anticipated from the capital it sunk into Chrysler and General Motors two years ago to save them from collapse.
Recently GM, Chrysler and Ford have been reporting significant increases in sales, although the industry this week reported a falloff in May.
“This industry is back on its feet, repaying its debts, gaining ground,” Obama told Chrysler workers. “Because of you we can once again say the best cars in the world are built right here in the U.S. of A.”
White House officials say the overall employment trend is moving in the right direction compared to the level of job losses that were occurring a couple years ago, seeking to place this month’s poor jobs report in the context of a continuing, if sluggish, recovery.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations spent $80 billion to bail out General Motors and Chrysler. Both companies went through bankruptcy in 2009 with government help. The Obama administration now says it will recoup more than 80 percent of the government investment — more than expected — and Obama defended the bailouts as money well spent.
Chrysler last week announced it would be paying off its remaining loans to the U.S. and Canadian governments ahead of schedule. And late Thursday, Treasury announced a deal to sell its remaining stake in Chrysler to Italian automaker Fiat. That means that of the $12.5 billion that the Treasury Department used to bail out Chrysler, all but about $1.3 billion will be recouped, Treasury said.
Before addressing the auto workers Obama made time for some retail politics in this battleground state, stopping at Rudy’s Hot Dog, a Toledo institution where the president got two of their famous chili dogs with mustard, onion and cheese, insisted on paying himself, and shook hands all around. Eager to make the case that Chrysler’s success also helped the broader Toledo economy, the president later stopped by a hardware store where he bought gardening gloves for Michelle Obama.
The auto industry resurgence is one of the few positive notes in an economy that had been growing moderately but has now hit a listless patch. Unemployment had been dropping from a high of 10.1 percent in October of 2009. But it now has experienced back-to-back increases.
The industry is also a major employer in presidential battleground states like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri, all of them important for Obama’s re-election prospects in 2012. The industry recovery gives Obama the opportunity to distinguish himself from Republicans who had criticized the government’s intervention
Among them was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who had called for Chrysler and GM to go through bankruptcy without government assistance.