NOVI, Mich. – As Michigan voters headed to the polls for the Republican primary Tuesday, President Obama touted his administration’s bailout of the Detroit auto industry, saying that he had “placed my bet on American workers” while his GOP challengers would have let General Motors and Chrysler go bankrupt.
It was a preview of an attack the president will press in the fall campaign – both in the traditional swing state of Michigan and throughout the industrial Midwest -- against Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or whomever emerges as the Republican presidential nominee when the chaos of a primary season sorts itself out.
By most accounts, the domestic auto industry is rebounding three years after the bailout. Sales for the Big Three – GM, Chrysler and Ford – are projected to pass 14 million cars this year, up from last year’s 12.8 million. GM alone posted a record $7.6 billion profit in 2011.
Of course, it helped that the government wiped out company debt and made financing available for GM and Chrysler to retool. All the GOP candidates opposed the program as an unfair burden on taxpayers and a political payoff to the United Auto Workers, which received a chunk of GM stock. The government has not received back much of the $50 billion it loaned GM.
Yet supporters say without the support, much of the Midwest, filled with firms that supply the Big Three, would have plunged deeper into recession.
Romney, who grew up in the state, the son of an auto executive and popular governor, has drawn the most fire for opposing the bailout, since he wrote a blunt op-ed in 2008 that was published in the New York Times under the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
He argued the companies should have gone through the normal bankruptcy reorganization process.
While much discussed in the run-up to the GOP primary here, the bailout probably did little to hurt any of the candidates for the simple reason that they shared the same position and there was no sharp contrast to be made.
Overall, last week’s NBC/Marist poll showed that 63 percent of Michigan voters surveyed said the bailout was a good idea, while 28 percent said it was a rotten one. Among self-identified Republicans, though, the split was 50 percent to 41 percent against the bailout.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Romney supporter, was at odds with his candidate.
“I'm not going to go armchair quarterback it,” Snyder said on ABCs This Week on Sunday. “I think there are alternative scenarios that could have worked also, but the point is, is that it's history, and the important part is it was successful, we're moving along, creating jobs.”
Dennis Anderson, sales manager for an adhesives company that supplies automakers, planned to vote for Romney and said that he too opposed the GM and Chrysler bailout.
“I know I’m biting off my own gravy train, but I wasn’t for them,” said Anderson, 56, who lives in the northwest suburbs of Detroit. “A lot of people got hurt, like retirees who invested in GM bonds.”
He said the auto industry, and Detroit, has “been taking a bad hit ever since I can remember and I’ve lived here my whole life.” Still Anderson added, “I don’t expect the government to take care of me. We are just spending way too much money – my kids are going to be hurting after I’m going paying off that (federal) debt.”