Sounding at times like he was on the campaign trail, an impassioned President Obama praised the 2009 federal bailout of the American auto industry -- and in the process implicitly criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, an opponent of the measure.
The president’s speech, in front of 1,700 members of the United Auto Workers union, came right before the Republican primary in Michigan, an important general-election state where Romney is running neck-and-neck with Rick Santorum in tonight's primary.
Obama condemned the conservative pushback against the $80 billion auto industry bailout -- which begun during the Bush administration -- saying that had the government not intervened, another option would have been to “do absolutely nothing and let these companies fail.”
“And you will recall there were some politicians who said we should do that,” Obama said as the audience booed.
He quoted one specific course of action, which happened to also be the title of Romney’s 2008 op-ed in which he called for a “managed bankruptcy” of the auto industry.
“Some even said we should ‘let Detroit go bankrupt’” Obama said to continued boos. “You remember that?” he continued.
Obama seemed to make another indirect reference to Romney when he said that some politicians claim the unions wanted the bailout simply to line their own coffers.
“You've got folks saying, 'Well, the real problem is -- what we really disagreed with was the workers, they all made out like bandits -- that saving the auto industry was just about paying back the unions,'" Obama said.
“Really?” he continued as the audience laughed. “I mean, even by the standards of this town, that’s a load of you know what.”
While Romney has frequently criticized Obama for engaging in what he calls “crony capitalism,” charging Obama gives favorable treatment to “union bosses” in exchange for campaign donations, Romney has taken pains to clarify that he is not targeting individual union members.
“Look, unions play an important role. I have no problem with union members. I feel they make a real contribution. But union bosses, let me tell you, that's a different group,” Romney said at a Detroit-area event on Feb. 23.
While Obama’s speech did feel at times like a direct rebuke of some of Romney’s campaign lines, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney today denied that the references -- including the title of Romney’s op-ed -- should be interpreted as a reproach of the former Massachusetts governor.
“Others may have also certainly shared that sentiment if not the same sentence,” Carney said of “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
Carney added that Obama’s remarks on the auto bailout reflected his desire to weigh in on a policy decision that happens to be a hot-button political issue as well.
“This is a matter of public debate right now and it is certainly appropriate for the president to make his policy positions known and to engage in that public debate.”
The auto bailout may be a topic in both political and policy discussions, but President Obama did overtly acknowledge his own political fortunes several times during his twenty-five minute speech.
He told the crowd that he had visited GM’s Hamtramck factory in Detroit, the home of the Chevy Volts, where he was allowed to sit in the car but not drive it, per Secret Service direction.
“Five years from now when I’m not president anymore, I’ll buy one and drive it myself,” Obama said, looking beyond this November’s election.
That off-the-cuff remark prompted the crowd to begin chanting, “Four more years! Four more years!”
*** UPDATE *** The political dimension to Obama’s speech was only underscored when, hours after the speech, Jim Messina, the Obama re-election campaign manager, tweeted, “POTUS was fired up at the UAW today” with a link to the campaign’s Tumblr site, at the top of which was a moving picture featuring portions of today’s speech.