SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama's entertained scores of visiting dignitaries at the White House, but yesterday was distinctive for him: South Korea's president visited Michigan with Mr. Obama. They toured a GM plant together and spoke to workers there about the new free trade deal between their two countries. NPR's Ari Shapiro was on the trip.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Over the last few years, during factory tours around the country, President Obama has driven an electric vehicle and persuaded a New York Times reporter to get aboard a high-tech scooter. So, it was a safe bet that when he and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak found a brand new subcompact Chevy Sonic car on a tour of the GM plant here, the two world leaders would climb in. Mr. Obama took the steering wheel; Lee rode shotgun with a Detroit baseball cap on his head.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They took away the keys though. Secret Service wouldn't let me. I got a checked and the (unintelligible)...
SHAPIRO: The car is made in the U.S. with some parts from South Korea. And the image of the two world leaders sitting side by side in the vehicle was a pretty good metaphor for what President Obama believes will come out of this trade deal between the two countries.
OBAMA: The good thing is we've got a balanced situation. It's not just a matter of folks sending a bunch of stuff here. Koreans are also buying American products. That's what makes it a win-win.
SHAPIRO: South Korean President Lee recognized that the deal has some skeptics, especially in Rust Belt states like Michigan. Manufacturing jobs have vanished overseas through free trade. President Lee said through a translator that won't be the outcome of this deal.
PRESIDENT LEE MYUNG-BAK: (Through Translator) Rather, it will create more jobs for you and your family, and it is going to protect your jobs, and this is the pledge that I give you today.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
SHAPIRO: That line got a standing ovation. Auto workers and their unions are generally happy with this trade deal. It's other workers' groups that object. President Obama lost nearly all of Michigan's Democrats on the trade votes this week. He says they ought not to worry because he insisted that the deal come with provisions to retrain workers who lose their jobs to foreign trade. And further, he says, he was not willing to settle for the deal that he inherited from President Bush - the new administration insisted on renegotiating.
OBAMA: It was like a scene from a GM dealership where folks are negotiating about the heated seats and the extended warranty, and you're going back and forth and trying to figure out how does it fit together so that it works for everybody?
SHAPIRO: Here in the Detroit area, Mr. Obama also defended one of his earliest decisions as president: to spend government bailout money on rescuing GM and Chrysler.
OBAMA: There were a lot of politicians who said it wasn't worth the time, it wasn't worth the money. In fact, there are some politicians who still say that.
SHAPIRO: That was a reference to Mitt Romney who criticized the bailout at the Republican presidential debate on Tuesday.
MITT ROMNEY: Were there some institutions that should not have been bailed out? Absolutely. Should they have used the funds to bail out General Motors and Chrysler? No. That was the wrong source for that funding.
SHAPIRO: Back in Michigan, President Obama said to a cheering crowd: Today I can say stand here and say the investment paid off.
OBAMA: The hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been saved made it worth it. An American auto industry that's more profitable and competitive than it's been in years made it worth it. The taxpayers are being repaid.
SHAPIRO: That's consistent with what Gerald Nelson has seen. For the last 42 years, he has worked on wiring systems for new cars.
GERALD NELSON: I would say probably 300 new hires I've seen in the last six months just coming through, and I'm sure there's more than that.
SHAPIRO: He acknowledges that this is not what people would have expected from Detroit just a few years ago. Right now, he says, his family and friends are doing all right economically, but he says it tentatively. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, traveling with the president.