Obama woos blue-collar Rust Belt


President Barack Obama presented himself as a champion of blue-collar workers on Tuesday, laying out his credentials with populist addresses to the AFL-CIO and autoworkers during a campaign-style swing through the Rust Belt.

Obama’s speech in Pittsburgh to the union coalition, which included an endorsement of card-check legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize, came on a day he traveled through Pennsylvania and Ohio — two states that will be critical to his 2012 reelection.

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The president’s full-court press at the AFL-CIO convention comes as unemployment nears double digits and questions surface about his commitment to core legislation backed by organized labor.

Union officials hailed Obama as a welcome breath of fresh air Tuesday, but many wonder how long the honeymoon can last if labor’s signature issues end up on the congressional cutting-room floor.

In addition to seeing no progress this year on the Employee Free Choice Act, the formal name for the card-check bill, unions have been troubled by the administration’s softening on a government-run health insurance plan as part of the broader health reform.

Earlier in the day, Obama received a boost from one of his party’s newest members. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), also speaking to the group in Pittsburgh, told the audience that senators had reached a deal on the card-check legislation and that he expected it would pass this year.

The president returned the favor later on, hailing Specter at a fundraiser in Philadelphia as a senator who has “always put his state before politics, before party.”

During the day, while visiting some of the nation’s cities hit hardest by the downturn, Obama did his best to highlight what he has accomplished.

At a General Motors plant outside of Youngstown, Ohio, a region that suffers from the second-worst unemployment rate in the state, Obama boasted of his successes in bringing both the U.S. auto industry and the economy back from the brink.

Obama talked about his administration’s intervention into the autos’ bankruptcies and applauded the success of the “cash-for-clunkers” program.

“Because of the steps we have taken, this plant is about to shift into higher gear,” Obama said. “One hundred and fifty of your co-workers came back to work yesterday.”

The president also defended his decision to get involved in the bailouts and reorganizations of U.S. autos.

“Our belief was that if GM retooled and reinvented itself for the 21st century, it would be good for American workers, it would be good for American manufacturing, it would be good for America’s economy. I’m pleased to report that’s exactly what’s begun to happen at this plant and others across the country,” he said.

“So I know that some of those decisions might not have been popular, but I’ll tell you what: I will double down on the American people, the American worker and all of you any day of the week.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), traveling with the president, told reporters on Air Force One that the cash-for-clunkers program, which ran out of money because of its success, is “what the recovery is all about.”

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“Clearly, we’re not even close to out of the woods, but there’s some good news,” Brown said. “We’re seeing the auto industry show some signs of life, in part because of the cash-to-clunkers, in part because of the stimulus package.”

Later, at the AFL-CIO convention, Obama made brief mention of his support for labor’s signature issues, but union officials’ and the crowd’s warm welcome made it clear that while the future might be bumpy, right now Obama is still their man.

Outgoing AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, in introducing Obama, said “our labor movement is proud of its choice for president.”

Sweeney said that while Obama has been “subjected to some of the most vile attacks in modern politics,” the union has supported him.

“The president knows that we in this room are the wind at his back,” Sweeney said. “We are answering the lies with truths.”

While Obama made only brief mention of his support for the embattled public option, he did impart a sense of urgency in passing healthcare reform, at one point inspiring a chant of “We can’t wait!” from the crowd.

The president did not mention his administration’s decision to enact tariffs on Chinese tires on behalf of the United Steelworkers union.

The AFL-CIO and other unions have applauded the move, which drew a sharp rebuke and accusations of protectionism from China just a week before the G-20 meeting, also in Pittsburgh.

The White House said Tuesday that Obama does not regret his decision, and Brown applauded the president’s move and said the Chinese “have too much at stake to launch any kind of trade war.”

“The Chinese always respond that way. You can expect it,” Brown said. “The president showed courage. The president did the right thing. The Chinese are always going to complain. Exports are such a more important part of their economy to us than the other way around.”

While the president sought to reassure blue-collar workers Tuesday about the economy, he did warn brighter days may not be on the immediate horizon, telling the Ohio GM workers that even though they are “proving that American automakers are getting back in the game, you know that our economic troubles are far from over.”

“I don’t want to over-promise it. We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Obama said.