The cheering crowd of workers at a Chrysler production plant for the Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Liberty, and Dodge Nitro belied the grim economic news of the day: a new Labor Department jobs report released on Friday morning showed the U.S. had gained a meager 54,000 jobs in May -- a far cry from the 100,000 analysts said the U.S. would need to add in order to prevent turmoil in the markets.
Nor did Obama’s speech reflect the news. The president sought to downplay the report, spending more than 10 minutes of his 20-minute speech rehashing the reason he decided to bail out the auto companies and thanking workers for their efforts. “I placed my bet on you. I put my faith in the American worker. And I'll tell you what, I'm going to do that every day of the week because what you've done vindicates my faith,” he said. “Today, all three automakers are turning a profit.”
Only after the celebration was there a brief allusion to the report, which Obama did not directly mention. Rather, he reminded the workers that there was still a long way to go toward economic recovery and listed recent obstacles, pointing to incidents that the White House would argue are out of their control.
“Lately, high gas prices have caused a lot of hardship for a lot of working families,” the president said. “Then you have the economic disruptions following the tragedy in Japan. You’ve got the instability in the Middle East, which makes folks uncertain. There are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery.”
The president’s trip was pegged to the news that Chrysler and General Motors had repaid $80 billion in bailout loans from the U.S. government six years ahead of schedule, saving what the administration argued was 1 million jobs at car manufacturing plants. The Treasury Department also announced last night that it would sell its 6 percent stake in Chrysler to Fiat for $500 million.
But it’s always harder to convince people that preventing something from happening is as good as making something happen. Sure, Obama may have saved 1 million jobs by making what the White House acknowledged was an “unpopular” decision to bail out the companies, but what was more tangible on Friday was that in the past week, economic recovery appears to have slowed dramatically. In addition to the anemic jobs report, unemployment ticked up to 9.1 percent, Treasury bonds slipped to their lowest yields of the year, and housing prices sank. His words about the Chrysler and GM plants adding shifts and hiring back laid-off workers seemed overly optimistic in light of that news.
Even Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne likely found Obama’s visit distasteful. He had declined to celebrate the fact that the company had repaid their loans like GM, which ran ads announcing the occasion. "I think that's incredibly tacky stuff," Marchionne told The Detroit News last week. "When you owe money to people and you pay them back, you really shouldn't be celebrating.”
The White House spent the morning trying to portray the jobs report as the result of various short-term disruptions rather than a permanent slowing of the recovery. “We've had temporary headwinds we've been dealing with, higher gas prices from the supply disruptions in the Middle East, and disruptions from the supply chain and the disaster in Japan, but we're confident we're heading in the right direction,” said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer in an interview on MSNBC on Friday morning after the report came out.
Meanwhile, Republicans were quick to take advantage of the opportunity to pan Obama’s success story.
“It’s clear from this morning’s jobs report that the economy still isn’t creating enough jobs,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. He repeated calls for major spending cuts, which the Republicans are demanding must accompany any increase in the debt ceiling.