LORDSTOWN, Ohio (Reuters) - President Barack Obama promised struggling autoworkers on Tuesday he was committed to rebuilding a thriving U.S. auto industry and said the world’s largest economy was on the mend.
“It’s going to take some time to achieve a complete recovery,” Obama said during a visit to General Motors Co’s sprawling Lordstown plant in Ohio.
But Obama, who took office on January 20 after eight years of the Bush administration, said his policies had stopped a freefall in the economy and “helped us turn the corner.”
The fate of the Lordstown plant has been up in the air for much of the past decade but lately it has become the centerpiece of GM’s effort to build more fuel-efficient vehicles and change its image as a producer of gas-guzzlers.
“We’re going to rebuild,” Obama said in a campaign-style speech to the unionized workers who are an important part of his political base.
Later, visiting Pittsburgh, another part of the U.S. industrial heartland hit hard by economic woes, Obama pitched his plan to extend health coverage to the uninsured before a raucous crowd at the AFL-CIO labor federation’s convention.
“When are we going to say enough is enough?” Obama said. “Now is the time to deliver on healthcare reform.”
“We can’t wait,” the workers chanted back.
They reserved their loudest applause for Obama’s call for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize.
Obama will return to Pittsburgh next week to host the Group of 20 leaders of the biggest industrialized and developing economies.
Trade frictions with China are likely to be on display at the summit after the United States last week imposed new duties on Chinese tires. Obama did not mention the tire decision at either the auto plant or AFL-CIO speeches, although the move is popular with many union workers.
Obama has sought in recent weeks to highlight indications of economic improvement in the hopes of recovering his popularity, which has suffered amid a heated debate over his plans to reform the healthcare system.
In signs the U.S. economy is on the road out of recession, retail sales rose at the fastest pace in 3-1/2 years in August and a gauge of New York state manufacturing activity hit a nearly two-year high.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Tuesday the U.S. economy was likely out of its worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s but cautioned that the recovery would be modest.
“Even though from a technical perspective the recession is very likely over at this point, it’s still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time,” Bernanke said after giving a speech at a Brookings Institution conference.
Obama traveled on Monday to Wall Street to push his plan to overhaul U.S. financial regulations to prevent a repeat of the crisis triggered by the collapse a year ago of Lehman Brothers, once a titan of investment banking. He said the government was beginning to unwind its role in the financial sector.
But experts believe it will be years before the government can fully pull back from its $65 billion investments in GM and rival automaker Chrysler.
General Motors is now 61 percent owned by the U.S. Treasury after massive emergency funding provided by the government to help it restructure after a fast-track bankruptcy.
“The president coming here is really something special for the Lordstown complex that I believe we needed,” said employee Michael Lisbon, who wore a Navy blue T-shirt with a GM logo. “Our future’s good. We’re going to be OK.”
To the White House’s frustration, the bailouts of the auto companies and financial firms have helped to fuel uneasiness over Obama’s healthcare proposals as critics charge that the government already has too large a role in the economy.
Obama said managing auto companies “wasn’t something on my to-do list. It wasn’t even something on my want-to-do list.”
But Obama, who has sought to emphasize he inherited an economy already in deep recession from former President George W. Bush, said he had no choice but to try to save an industry whose collapse would have cause enormous harm to the economy.
In the feistier tone that has marked his recent speeches, Obama portrayed himself as a fighter and said he would “not rest until anyone who is looking for a job can find one.”
“I’ve said it before: I’m skinny, but I’m tough.”
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Washington and Kevin Krolicki in Detroit; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Cynthia Osterman