Surrogates for President Obama took aim Tuesday at several of his potential 2012 rivals for opposing the auto industry bailout, making clear that they plan on making the issue central to the debate in the battleground states of Michigan and Ohio.
The pointed criticism of Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman came as Chrysler paid more than $5.8 billion of the $10.5 billion they received from the U.S. government -- and as President Obama issued a statement that claimed vindication for one of his less popular moves.
“Supporting the American auto industry required making some tough decisions, but I was not willing to walk away from the workers at Chrysler and the communities that rely on this iconic American company,” Obama said in a statement. “ I said if Chrysler and all its stakeholders were willing to take the difficult steps necessary to become more competitive, America would stand by them. And we did.”
All four of the president's top Republican opponents had made critical comments of the $85 billion rescue of General Motors and Chrysler—a fact highlighted in a Democratic National Committee press call featuring former Govs. Ted Strickland of Ohio and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. Both Democrats suggested that the Republican presidential hopefuls' stands should be an issue in next year's campaign.
“I think we’ll be able to ask the question directly and honestly, where would Ohio’s economy be if Romney, or Pawlenty, or Gingrich, or Huntsman had been in the presidency and would have made the decision that would have allowed these thousands and thousands of jobs to be lost,” said Strickland.
All four Republicans had expressed reservations about the Obama plan. Romney raised questions about the U.S. government owning and having a say in running the car companies. Pawlenty said that auto manufacturers should seek a Chapter 11 protection rather than a taxpayer-funded bailout. Gingrich has cited the bailout as evidence that Obama is “the most radical president in American history.” And Huntsman said in 2008 that the companies should go through bankruptcy before a taxpayer-funded bailout should be considered.
The Obama campaign’s decision to use the auto industry bailout as an issue is an interesting move considering the level of past voter antipathy to it. While economists say the bailout saved tens of thousands of jobs, both Obama and President George W. Bush—who pushed out the first $25 billion of the bailout before he left office—faced stiff public resistance as it was rolled out.
A CNN poll in December 2008 found that 61 percent of Americans opposed the bailout; only 36 percent supported it. When Obama injected an additional $60 billion in the first months of his presidency, a Gallup poll found 72 percent opposing the additional money for the auto companies and only 25 percent in favor.
But Democratic officials say that showing the differences between Obama and the Republican field on the bailout makes clear the sharp differences in judgement between Obama and his potential GOP opponent in 2012.
Granholm offered the sharpest criticism of Romney, whose late father, George Romney, was governor of Michigan and the head of American Motors. Last year, the younger Romney told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that “the last thing that America needs is to have one of our major car companies—actually two, for that matter—being run by the government."
Had Romney's view prevailed, "it would have been not a restructuring but a liquidation,” Granholm said.
Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney’s presidential exploratory committee, said that ultimately it was the fundamental restructuring of the auto industry—not the bailout as the Obama administration contends—that led to the rebound of Chrysler and GM. In a New York Times editorial in November 2008, Romney argued that “a managed bankruptcy may be the only path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs.”
“Mitt Romney argued that instead of a bailout, we should let the car companies go through a restructuring under the protection of the bankruptcy laws,” Saul said. “This is the course the Obama administration eventually followed. If they had done it sooner, as Mitt Romney suggested, the taxpayers would have saved a lot of money."
The criticism from Granholm and Strickland came as the White House celebrated Chrysler--once deemed by industry insiders and economists as a longshot for survival-- for paying roughly $10.6 billion to the U.S. government in repayments and interest.
Vice President Joe Biden called Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, United Auto Workers president Bob King, and a worker from Chrysler’s Jefferson North Plant, to congratulate them on repaying the loans more than six years ahead of schedule. And the White House dispatched Ron Bloom and Brian Deese--the president's point men on the auto bailout--to a ceremony at Chrysler's Sterling Heights, Mich., plant where the automakers top executives publicly thanked the administration for the bailout.
Alex Roarty contributed. contributed to this article.