Speaking before the United Auto Workers Tuesday, President Obama defended his rescue of the auto industry. His Republican rivals continue to criticize the bailout. The UAW is expected to play an active role in his re-election campaign.
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Now, on the Democratic side there was no competition yesterday. But President Obama still seemed to have Michigan on his mind, as he delivered a fiery, campaign-style speech to unionized autoworkers here in Washington, D.C. Mr. Obama defended the government bailout of the auto industry, which his Republican rivals continue to criticize. That rescue plan has won the president strong support from the UAW, a group that's expected to play an active role in his re-election campaign.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The crowd of UAW political activists were on their feet cheering for the president, from the moment he was introduced by union president Bob King.
BOB KING: Our next speaker stood behind us...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING, YEAH)
KING: ...and saved our jobs...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
KING: ...and saved our industry...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama told the workers he knew using taxpayer money to rescue General Motors and Chrysler was unpopular back in 2009. But he said he thought the naysayers might have come around by now, with those companies profitable and the auto industry adding some 200,000 workers.
Instead, GOP presidential hopefuls continue to criticize the rescue effort, even as they stump for votes in car-making capitals like Detroit and Toledo.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've got to admit, it's been funny to watch some of these folks completely try to rewrite history now that you're back on your feet.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama did not call out his Republican rivals by name, but he shot down Mitt Romney's argument that GM and Chrysler could have successfully navigated bankruptcy without government funding.
OBAMA: There were no private investors or companies out there willing to take a chance on the auto industry. Nobody was lining up to give you guys loans. Anyone in the financial sector can tell you that.
HORSLEY: The president also appeared to take on Rick Santorum, who's based much of his campaign on appeals to conservative social values.
OBAMA: You want to talk about values? Hard work, that's a value. Looking out for one another, that's a value. The idea that we're all in it together and I'm my brother's keeper and sister's keeper, that's a value.
HORSLEY: For Mr. Obama, the auto rescue illustrates a key difference between Democrats' faith in an activist government and a Republican philosophy he characterizes as: You're on your own. The president said by rescuing Chrysler and General Motors, the government had helped not only autoworkers, but the surrounding communities, as well.
OBAMA: Not just your families, but the schoolteachers, the small business owners, the server in the diner who knows your order, the bartender who's waiting for you to get off. That's right.
HORSLEY: Rich Boruff heads UAW local 685 in Kokomo, Indiana, where Chrysler employs one worker out of eight. Boruff says his city would have been a ghost town were it not for the president's rescue effort.
RICH BORUFF: Unbelievable, buddy. Unbelievable. You can't beat a guy sticking by you.
HORSLEY: So when Boruff talks to his members about getting active in the president's re-election effort, he doesn't have to do much of a sales job. Back in 2008, Local 685 made 40,000 telephone calls in support of then-candidate Obama. Boruff thinks his members will top that total this year.
BORUFF: Basically, he saved us. He was our lifeline. And those people won't forget it. And I got a chance to tour him and Biden around my plant. And I let him know. I let him know that our members will not forget what he's done for us.
HORSLEY: Retired autoworker Bob Brown of Shreveport, Louisiana is also in the president's debt. Brown's afraid he might have lost his pension were it not for the way the auto rescue was structured.
BOB BROWN: It really touched a special chord with me. If I could vote 10 times for President Obama, I promise you I would.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama's also counting on support this year from other unions, some of which have been alarmed by Romney's tough stance against organized labor, and by the efforts of several Republican governors to limit collective bargaining. Four years ago, Mr. Obama won 60 percent of the union vote. That kind of support this fall could be decisive, not only in Michigan, but also in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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