Obama Pushes Free Trade Agenda In Detroit

President Obama was in Detroit Friday, selling his free trade agenda. He brought the message to an auto plant and brought along the South Korean president. Guy Raz talks to NPR's Ari Shapiro for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz.

President Obama has hosted many world leaders at the White House. Today is the first time he's taken one of them far outside of Washington. South Korea's president went along a tour of a Michigan car plant. And Mr. Obama took the opportunity to talk up the new free trade deal between the U.S. and South Korea.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our trade is basically balanced between the United States and Korea. They buy as much stuff from us as they sell to us. And that's how fair and free trade is supposed to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

OBAMA: It's not a one-sided proposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

RAZ: NPR's Ari Shapiro traveled with both presidents today to Orion Township in Michigan. And just after the speeches were over, Ari explained to us from a crowded room why they were there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is General Motors Assembly Plant outside of Detroit, where they're building a subcompact car called the Chevy Sonic. The White House says it's the only subcompact car currently sold in the U.S. that is being built here in the United States. It was originally engineered in Korea. Now it's being assembled here in Michigan. And President Obama said that he expects soon South Koreans will be buying lots of American cars, thanks to the free trade deal that Congress passed with South Korea this week.

RAZ: Ari, the carmakers, the union, they are fans of this free trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea that was finally passed this week. But more broadly, in Michigan, what is the sentiment there?

SHAPIRO: Here's one indication. When Air Force One landed in Detroit today, no one from the Michigan congressional delegation was here to greet the president. Most Michigan Democrats voted against this trade deal. The car workers union liked it. A lot of the other unions are very skeptical. They say South Korea may flood the American market, companies might ship jobs overseas. You know, that's always a concern with trade deals, but it's especially acute here in Rust Belt states like Michigan that rely on manufacturing.

President Obama says the deal will create 70,000 new American jobs, more than $10 billion in exports. But those jobs could be in other states and other industries, so people in Michigan are frankly a little bit skeptical.

RAZ: But wasn't this deal, this trade deal supposed to include programs to retrain displaced workers?

SHAPIRO: Yes, and ultimately that did bring some Democrats on board. President Obama talked about those provisions today. He said the deal he inherited from President Bush was not good enough for him. He went back to the drawing board, he said, and he compared it to haggling at a GM plant where you're talking about heated seats. He says, ultimately, the deal that he and South Korea agreed on is going to be good for America.

RAZ: Now, the president is also using this trip to Michigan to talk up his decision to come to the rescue of the America auto industry. What did he say about that?

SHAPIRO: Well, he defended the decision. You remember? That was a controversial decision at the beginning of President Obama's term, and it's still controversial. As he pointed out in the speech today, Mitt Romney, running for president, criticized the decision in a debate Tuesday night, but President Obama argued today that it was the right decision.

He said the investment paid off. He said the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been saved made it worth it. He said the profitable auto industry in the U.S. now makes it worth it. And the taxpayers, he said, are being repaid.

RAZ: Ari, this trip is not just about the politics of trade. This is very much about the politics of re-election. How prominent was that part of the president's message today?

SHAPIRO: Well, his speech ended with yes, we can. You know, Michigan is very important to President Obama's re-election strategy in several ways. This is a state that has chosen a Democrat in every presidential election since 1988. But in 2010, the Tea Party wave that swept across the country carried a Republican governor in here and Republican members of Michigan State Legislature. Democrats feel very strongly that if they lose the state, they are really in trouble.

You know, in terms of ideology, they say the auto industry here is evidence that the government can do good things, which is the Democrats' argument here. You can expect to hear President Obama make that argument a lot here in Michigan and across Rust Belt states in the country over the next year.

RAZ: Ari, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Guy.

RAZ: That's NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro.

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