Obama Attempts Jump Start In Detroit

President Obama went to Michigan on Friday, the "ground zero" of the recession, to kick off a campaign highlighting the turnaround in the U.S. auto industry.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. President Obama took a short test drive yesterday in a new Chevy Volt. He also tested some new campaign rhetoric, arguing that the difficult choice he made to rescue the U.S. auto industry in 2009 is beginning to pay off. He reiterated the message today in his weekly radio address.

President BARACK OBAMA: Of course, if some folks had their way none of this would be happening at all. This plant might not exist, because there were leaders of the Just Say No crowd in Washington who argued that standing by the auto industry would guarantee failure. One called it the worst investment you could possibly make. They said we should just walk away and let these jobs go.

LYDEN: Yesterday, Mr. Obama dared opponents of that rescue to tell autoworkers at General Motors and Chrysler that their jobs weren't worth preserving. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: To appreciate where the U.S. auto industry is today, President Obama says you first have to think back to where it was a year and a half ago when he came into office.

President OBAMA: The industry looked like it was going over a cliff.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says he faced a difficult choice: give the automakers a short-term lifeline, as the Bush administration had done, or walk away and let them fail. He chose a third option - investing 60 billion taxpayer dollars in GM and Chrysler in exchange for major restructurings. Sixteen-year Chrysler veteran Steve Burmeister(ph) is grateful.

Mr. STEVE BURMEISTER (Chrysler Employee): Yeah, I'm glad somebody stepped in. It would've been a big loss if they'd have let it go, not only with jobs but products and history. Yeah, I believe they did the right thing.

HORSLEY: Burmeister works as a tool maker at Chrysler's Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit. For the last few years, he says, there wasn't a lot to look forward to, except short work weeks and layoffs. But now business is picking up. The factory just added a second shift this month with 1,100 new jobs.

Still, Burmeister and his coworkers don't necessarily think their jobs are safe just yet. One of the new hires, Chelsey Trogenza(ph), said a lot will depend on the success of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee model they make here.

Ms. CHELSEY TROGENZA (Chrysler): This is basically a hit or miss right now. If the Jeep doesn't go over well, then that really sucks for us. But if it does go over well, they're going to hire a lot more people. And then, you know, more people would be into jobs because of it.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama visited the Chrysler plant yesterday, as well as a General Motors factory, where he got behind the wheel of a new Chevy Volt - the plug-in hybrid that's a symbol of that company's new commitment to fuel economy.

Skeptics raised eyebrows this week when GM said the Volt would debut with a sticker price of $41,000. Eventually the government's big investment in battery technology should lead to lower prices. But auto advisor Ron Bloom of the Treasury Department warns that will take time.

Mr. RON BLOOM (Treasury Department): For a lot of years these companies were criticized for not having long-term strategic thinking. We now have these companies thinking long-term.

They understand this is not a next year, year after issue. This is a long-term bet that they're making on the direction of the industry. That bet is going to take a while to pay off, but I think we should be applauding their willingness to try to look ahead.

HORSLEY: In exchange for the bailout, the administration insisted both GM and Chrysler make deep cuts to adjust to a market where Americans are buying only 11 million cars a year, instead of 15 million or 16 million. Bruce Belzowski, of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, says if the market bounces back, the smaller companies that remain are poised to do very well.

Mr. BRUCE BELZOWSKI�(University of Michigan): I mean, there are economists that are saying that we're going to be back to 16 million vehicles by 2015. So you look at that and you go, wow, there's a potential here for these companies to make lots of money.

How they deal with capacity, if they don't have capacity for 16 million, that's a whole 'nother story. But it's a problem they would love to have.

HORSLEY: The auto bailout was and still is unpopular with many voters. But with the companies newly profitable and the industry as a whole hiring again, a combative President Obama told autoworkers they're proving the naysayers wrong.

President OBAMA: So don't bet against the American worker. Don't bet against the American people. We got more work to do. It's going to take some time to get back to where we need to be, but I have confidence in the American worker. I have confidence in you. I have confidence in this economy.

(Soundbite of cheering)

President OBAMA: We are coming back.

HORSLEY: That's a message Mr. Obama will be repeating this weekend in television interviews and in a visit planned to a Ford plant in Chicago next week.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Detroit.

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