To win Midwest, Obama needs to make the auto bailout a feel-good story

Right after Eminem says, “This is the Motor City, and this is what we do” would be the perfect time for the required tagline: “I’m Barack Obama, and I wish I had thought of this ad.”

If Obama wants to win Michigan and the Midwest in 2012, he needs to do what Chrysler and Eminem did so well last Sunday — make the auto bailout a feel-good American story.

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“I’m a Detroiter, and that ad almost makes me cry the way it flips Detroit’s gritty into sexy,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “They should talk to those guys.”

Through all the legislative battles and ups and downs of the first two years of the Obama presidency, the auto industry’s recovery is perhaps the best story Obama has to tell, and it’s also the story White House officials know has not yet connected with voters.

The bailout remains unpopular with many voters, even though the White House and Detroit believe it has largely been a success. If Obama, along with GM and Chrysler, can change those perceptions, it will be good for those companies’ bottom lines and for Obama’s reelection chances.

As Obama prepares to travel to Michigan on Thursday to promote wireless Internet expansion and winning the future in a globalized world, the short-term success of the auto industry is the story he needs people to credit to him.

Republicans pointed out after the Super Bowl that Chrysler probably paid for the multimillion-dollar ad with taxpayer money. After all, Chrysler is still in the process of repaying $15 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) money, it was basically forced to merge with European car company Fiat, and its success is far from assured.

It’s also worth remembering that a few months ago, there were already signs that the bailout was having a positive effect, but that didn’t stop Republicans from winning the state’s governor’s office or Rep. Tim Wahlberg (R) from reclaiming the seat he lost in 2008.

Still, the more than 3.5 million hits the Eminem clip has received on YouTube speaks to the story’s potential.

White House officials agree the story is one they want to tell.

Bailing out the auto companies was one of Obama’s biggest gambles in the early days of his administration, and the White House thinks it can make the case that the move has paid off.

Annual sales for 2010 show that last year was the first time since 1993 that the Big Three auto companies collectively gained in market share. All three generated an operating profit — a first in six years.

One White House official estimated the bailout and restructuring saved more than 1 million jobs while creating 81,000 since GM and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy.

Tony Fratto, deputy press secretary for former President George W. Bush, laughed at the idea of Obama running ads that highlight such an unpopular bailout.

“I guess it’s a marginally better idea than the president using the Go Daddy ad, but only marginally better, and not appropriate,” Fratto said.

But Obama can’t run from the auto bailout, and the White House is convinced that if the economy improves and the jobless rate falls, improvements in the auto sector could be a strong campaign pitch for the president.

Oddly enough, Eminem, a recovering drug addict and rapper known for his inflammatory lyrics, got the ball rolling for the fledgling 2012 team with an instant hit ad that ran during the most-watched television program in American history.

The challenge for Team Obama is to find a way to tell that story in a similarly inspiring way and with the same kind of buzz and widespread attention.

Unsolicited advice: Steal the ad, trade John Mellencamp for Eminem, and start running it in Indiana and the rest of the Midwest today.

It’s a winning story that the White House has so far failed to tell.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.