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Obama: US economy still facing challenges

Jim Kuhnhenn

TOLEDO, Ohio – Faced with a dismal new jobs report, President Barack Obama said Friday that the economy “is taking a while to mend” and faces “bumps on the road to recovery.” But at an event to celebrate the resurgence of the auto industry he made no mention of the dour economic news that threatened to obscure his optimistic message.

Obama’s visit to a Chrysler plant in politically important Ohio came after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employers in May added the fewest jobs in eight months – a meager 54,000 – and the unemployment rate inched up to 9.1 percent.

Normally Obama talks about the monthly jobs numbers the day they’re released, but he never mentioned them directly Friday — an omission immediately noted by Republicans who see the economy as Obama’s greatest weakness heading into the 2012 campaign.

The president focused instead on the turnaround in the auto industry and how the government has recouped much more money than anticipated from the capital it sunk into Chrysler and General Motors two years ago to save them from collapse.

If he wanted validation, he got it from Chrysler employees. “Thank you for bailing out Chrysler,” a woman told him as he shook workers’ hands at the plant’s exit turnstile during a shift change. “Thanks for helping me keep my job,” added another worker.

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

“This industry is back on its feet, repaying its debts, gaining ground,” Obama told Chrysler workers. “Because of you we can once again say the best cars in the world are built right here in the U.S. of A.”

Republicans were more interested in what the president didn’t say. The Republican National Committee wasted no time sending out a press release titled “Noticeable Omission” tweaking Obama for failing to address the jobs numbers.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it would have been “a little technical to be citing specific economic statistics given the rather informal setting,” but that the president had the jobs numbers in mind when he spoke of bumps in the road and the headwinds in the economy.

White House officials say the overall employment trend is moving in the right direction compared to the level of job losses that were occurring a couple years ago, seeking to place this month’s poor jobs report in the context of a continuing, if sluggish, recovery.

At the Chrysler plant, Obama patted himself on the back for the auto bailout, unpopular and controversial at the time but now proving a better investment for taxpayers than initially anticipated.

To let automakers fail, Obama said “would have been a brutal and irreversible shock to the entire economy and to the future of millions of Americans. So we refused to let that happen.”

Both the Bush and Obama administrations spent $80 billion to bail out General Motors and Chrysler. Both companies went through bankruptcy in 2009 with government help. The Obama administration now says it will recoup more than 80 percent of the government investment — more than expected – and Obama defended the bailouts as money well spent.

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, all but about $1.3 billion will be recouped, Treasury said.

At the plant before Obama spoke, 28-year Chrysler veteran Rick Shortridge, 53, said the outlook has changed dramatically since Chrysler went into bankruptcy two years ago.

“I thought my future was going to be saying ‘do you want fries with that,’” he said.

Before addressing the auto workers Obama made time for some retail politics in this battleground state, stopping at Rudy’s Hot Dog, a Toledo institution where the president got two of their famous chili dogs with mustard, onion and cheese, insisted on paying himself, and shook hands all around. Eager to make the case that Chrysler’s success also helped the broader Toledo economy, the president later stopped by a hardware store where he bought gardening gloves for Michelle Obama.

The auto 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 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. Romney on Friday defended his position. “The right process for an enterprise in trouble is not to be given money by the taxpayers in a bailout,” he told CBS’s “The Early Show.”

Associated Press writer John Seewer contributed to this report.