Obama: US economy still facing challenges

Source: WTOL
Source: WTOL

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - President Barack Obama says the U.S. economy is still facing challenges and it is going to take more time to mend the wounds inflicted by the recession.

Obama spoke at a Chrysler plant in Ohio against the backdrop of a dismal jobs report released Friday that shows the unemployment rate ticked up to 9.1 percent. Obama did not specifically mention the new numbers during his remarks.

The president did say that the economy is still facing "headwinds," including high gas prices, economic disruptions following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and instability in the Middle East.

The new economic numbers show that employers in May added the fewest jobs in eight months.

Obama's stop in Toledo was the latest in a string of domestic trips to promote his jobs agenda and defend the much maligned government bailouts to Chrysler and General Motors.

As the Republican presidential field begins to take shape, the White House is keenly aware that Obama's handling of the economy generates some of his highest public disapproval ratings.

White House officials said the overall employment trend was moving in the right direction compared to the level of job losses that were occurring a couple years ago, seeking to minimize this playing down this month's poor jobs report as a bump in the road to recovery.

"Every time we look at those numbers we don't get too excited by what those numbers say, or we don't get too disappointed by what those numbers say. What we're looking at is the overall trend," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One. "If you look at where we've come from, the turnaround is pretty dramatic."

The president was expected to address the job figures himself at the Chrysler plant. First, though, came some retail politics, as the president's motorcade pulled up at Rudy's Hot Dog, a Toledo institution where the president ordered one of their famous chili dogs with mustard, onion and cheese, insisted on paying himself, and shook hands all around.

The auto bailout proved controversial, and very unpopular in some quarters.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations spent $80 billion to bail out General Motors and Chrysler and help guide them through bankruptcy. The Obama administration says it will recoup more than 80 percent of that and Obama intends to defend the bailouts as money well spent.

A report by the president's National Economic Council this week said the taxpayers' loss from the bailout will total about $14 billion, much less than Treasury initially anticipated.

Chrysler last week announced it would be paying off its remaining loans to the U.S. and Canadian governments ahead of schedule. And late Thursday, Treasury announced a deal to sell its remaining stake in Chrysler to Italian automaker Fiat. That means that of the $12.5 billion that the Treasury Department used to bail out Chrysler, about $1.3 billion will not be recouped, Treasury said.

At the Toledo plant, Rick Shortridge, 53, of Oregon, Ohio, who has worked 28 years for the automaker, said the outlook has changed dramatically since Chrysler went into bankruptcy two years ago.

"It's a lot more relaxed," he said while awaiting Obama's arrival along with other workers. "It was real stressful then for a long time."

"I thought my future was going to be saying `do you want fries with that,' " he said.

Shortridge said he's grateful Obama stood up for the auto industry, but he thinks former President George W. Bush deserves some credit for giving the companies loans during the final days of his administration.

"Nobody's mentioning that too much," Shortridge said.

"We're just happy to have a job. A lot of people have been hit hard," he said.

GM received about $50 billion in the U.S. bailout, and the federal government has recovered about half of that by selling a portion of its ownership stake in the company. It intends to sell its remaining 26.5 percent share later on.

GM, Chrysler and Ford had been reporting significant increases in sales, although the industry this week reported a falloff in May.

The industry resurgence is one of the few positive notes in an economy that had been growing moderately but has now hit a listless patch. Unemployment had been dropping from a high of 10.1 percent in October of 2009. But it now has experienced back-to-back increases.

The auto industry is also a major employer in presidential battleground states like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri, all of them important for Obama's re-election prospects in 2012. The industry recovery gives Obama the opportunity to distinguish himself from Republicans who had criticized the government's intervention.

Among them was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who had called for Chrysler and GM to go through bankruptcy without government assistance.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)