President touts auto comeback before Midwest trip

President Obama is pushing aggressively to claim credit for the auto industry’s recovery ahead of his visit to the industrial Midwest — an area essential to his reelection efforts.

His auto czar joined the White House press briefing Wednesday to praise the president for having the “political courage” to rescue two of Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers, a message the president will take on the road Friday with a trip to northwest Ohio, a key battleground state in the presidential election.

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The news that Chrysler, which underwent a government-organized bankruptcy in 2009, had repaid its loans to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) six years ahead of schedule was used by the White House, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC), to defend the government’s bailout program.

Ron Bloom, Obama’s auto czar, hailed the positive news U.S. automakers are enjoying even as he warned that White House officials “by no means believe that their future is assured.”

“On the other hand, we believe that the steps we took and the steps they took in partnership with us have positioned some of these companies to where they have a real chance of success,” Bloom said.

And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on Wednesday saying: “It may have been more politically expedient to let Chrysler fail. But the president knew that if Chrysler collapsed, tens of thousands of jobs would have been shed in the near term — a body blow to an economy already on the ropes.”

Obama will travel to a Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, on Friday — a trip that carries an undoubtedly political component; the Midwest served as ground zero for the “shellacking” delivered to Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. Democrats lost governors’ races in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, and a slew of House and Senate races in each state, too. Democrats have trumpeted Chrysler’s recovery to help rebuild their political brand in the region, which includes must-win states for both Obama and his would-be challenger.

Although many Republicans voiced opposition to the rescue at the time, GOP lawmakers from those auto-manufacturing states say the president deserves some credit for the rescue of Chrysler and General Motors, though not as much as the White House would like.

“I’m appreciative that the president supported the domestic auto industry,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.). “I mean, I live in Michigan.”

Several lawmakers said President George W. Bush — whose administration launched the rescue efforts — and lawmakers in both parties deserve some of the credit.

“There were a lot of mothers and fathers of the success that GM and Chrysler are experiencing today. The president deserves credit, though I don’t think it’s the lion’s share,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio).

LaTourette noted that a number of residents in the region were adversely affected by the closing of GM and Chrysler dealerships negotiated before both companies’ bankruptcies (some were reinstated). But the Ohio lawmaker said Chrysler’s recovery doesn’t “cement” anything for Obama.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) also said that Obama deserves credit, alongside a whole cast of other characters. And he warned the president about taking too much credit.

“In the end, the people who are really going to make whether Chrysler and GM succeed are the workers, and they’re the ones who would deserve the credit, not the administration or any politician,” he said. “I think he’d make a mistake to say he single-handedly saved the auto industry, because that would not be factually accurate.”

Other Republicans have expressed more negative opinions toward Chrysler’s recovery; GOP staffers are quick to point out that the Treasury Department has said that it doesn’t expect a return on as much as $2 billion in investments in Chrysler. And GM, a far larger company, received billions more than Chrysler and faces a longer road to recovery.

Republicans’ skepticism toward the auto bailouts was implicit in Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) meeting Tuesday with Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford, the only company of the Big Three not to take bailout money.

But there’s a real sense of optimism about the other companies’ bounce-back, and it’s hard to imagine a downside to trumpeting the bailouts as a success, according to Bill Ballenger, a Michigan political analyst.

“It’s only an upside, it seems to me, for the administration,” said Ballenger, the editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “I don’t see any upside for people who were opposed to the bailout. They can only hope it doesn’t hurt them.”

Democrats aren’t ready to let Republicans skirt by on their auto record. The day Chrysler repaid its TARP loans, the DNC released a video slamming Republican presidential candidates for their opposition to the bailouts. They’ve also dispatched former Democratic Govs. Jennifer Granholm (Mich.) and Ted Strickland (Ohio) to make frequent appearances on cable television to deliver the same message.

The governors and the video were particularly tough on Mitt Romney (R), who grew up in Michigan and whose father served three terms as governor.

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Romney, who leads in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, had written an op-ed in late 2008 advocating bankruptcy for GM and Chrysler. Both companies eventually went through that process, and Romney’s campaign sought credit for developing the idea eventually pursued by the administration.

Ballenger said there’s “no doubt” that Romney, who launched his 2008 campaign for president in Michigan and won the state’s GOP primary, will face fallout. He and other opponents of the bailouts might be better served to “keep their mouth shut,” he said.

In the meantime, the administration appears set to look to capitalize on a sense of optimism surrounding the companies, bolstered further on Wednesday with Chrysler’s announcement that last month it enjoyed a 10 percent increase in sales versus a year ago, and its best monthly sales since 2008.

That sense of redemption was crystallized in the company’s highly touted “Imported From Detroit” Super Bowl commercial, featuring Motor City native Eminem.

“I know this sounds odd, but when I first saw that commercial during the Super Bowl — I had a big party at my house — everybody got quiet to watch the ad, and honestly I got very emotional; we all did,” said Miller, whose district includes Chrysler, GM and Ford establishments. “The ad captured — it’s about redemption. It’s about a city that can be redeemed, it’s about an industry that can be redeemed, and believe me, we understand that we made many of our own problems, but it’s about redemption and coming back.”