Obama in Detroit: Honing His Economic Message

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Carlos Osorio / AP

President Obama delivers a speech at the Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit

One of the women who took Barack Obama on a tour of the Jeep Grand Cherokee assembly line Friday wore a t-shirt with the president's image that read "Our Dreams Do Come True." A few miles away, at the Hamtramck General Motors plant, workers brought in red-white-and-blue pom poms to celebrate his arrival. "It's the savior of the company," joked Dave Notarianni, an electrician of 38 years for GM. "Barack, our boss."

In terms of raw star power, it's hard to top the U.S. President in an American auto factory these days. Not only is Obama, by dint of his job, the majority shareholder in GM and a major investor in Chrysler, he is quite literally both companies' savior. "You did! You did! You did!" shouted the enthusiastic throng at GM, when Obama recounted his own decision to invest $60 billion in taxpayer money to prevent the dissolution of the two companies last year.

"Don't bet against the American worker," Obama now proclaims, congratulating himself on his investment. Indeed, the trend line is good: American auto giants are all making a profit so far this year, the first time since 2004, and the government estimates that Obama's $60 billion investment still has a market value of about $60 billion or more, suggesting that taxpayers may yet be made whole on his investment. At the Jeep plant, another shift had just been added, with 1,100 additional workers. "I feel like I did back in '94, when I first started," explained Shearard Myricks, a Chrysler worker, who spent months in 2009 collecting unemployment benefits. "It's a feeling of euphoria."

But one only need look across the street from the factories Obama visited Friday to see that the euphoria is not so widely held. Detroit remains a struggling shell of its former self, with boarded up and burned out houses lining the major roads, and an unemployment rate around 25%. The contrast between spots of success and the broader agony in Michigan served as an apt metaphor for the broader state of the American economy. Just as Obama boarded Air Force One Friday, the Commerce Department announced that economic growth had fallen sharply in the second quarter, to 2.4% from 3.7%. Economists say the lower rate spells high unemployment for the foreseeable future.

This contrast has created for the White House a major political vulnerability, and a targeted opportunity, with less than 100 days to go before the midterm elections. Polls show clearly that the American people remained dissatisfied with the Administration's economic performance, with majorities opposing many of the specific programs — the bank bailout, the stimulus, the auto bailout — that economists say have had the most positive effect. At the same time, there are signs of Obama's success, though many of them are most easily described by pointing to horrors that did not come to pass.

"Independent estimates suggest that more than 1 million jobs could have been lost if Chrysler and GM had liquidated," Obama told the workers who build Jeeps. "And in the middle of a deep recession, that would have been a brutal, irreversible shock."

In a gaggle with reporters as Air Force One touched down in Detroit, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs tried to deal with the broader economic malaise by shifting blame elsewhere, onto Europe and Republicans. "The United States made some tough decisions to stabilize our financial system and to inject some recovery into their economy. And Europe didn't do, quite frankly, as much," Gibbs said. "And that has no doubt stunted our growth and stunted world growth." He also called for Republicans to unblock a small-business incentive package in the Senate, which has fallen victim in recent days to political squabbling about process.

As such, Friday was a day for unveiling at the White House, with top aides telegraphing in new detail the President's economic election message. Targeted successes will be trumpeted, even as the lingering pain of the recession is blamed on forces beyond the White House control.

Next week, Obama will take this message to a Ford factory in Chicago, where the workers will no doubt greet him with similar adulation. Obama may sign his name to another car hood, as he did in both the Chrysler and GM plants, or take another turn behind the wheel, as he did with a Chevy Volt on the assembly line in Hamtramck. But the question in the November election is not whether auto workers are impressed. It's how much credit the rest of the country is willing to give Obama for the things he succeeded in doing, despite the enormous amounts of lingering economic pain.