Obama expected to visit Ford plant in Wayne

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

President Barack Obama is expected to visit a Ford Motor Co. plant in Wayne on Wednesday, to herald the auto industry turnaround that's been one of brightest spots in the recovering U.S. economy.

The president's expected visit to Ford's Michigan Assembly plant, where the Dearborn automaker builds small, fuel-efficient cars, is the latest in a long list of auto plant tours and speeches by Obama dating back to his first campaign, when the industry was on the brink of collapse.

It's part of a multicity tour to highlight his administration's successes in preparation for his Jan. 20 State of the Union address.

The White House on Sunday wouldn't say the Ford plant was the president's specific destination, but two people with direct knowledge of the trip confirmed it. A Ford spokeswoman, Christin Baker, declined to comment.

Obama's Metro Detroit speech comes less than a month after the U.S. Treasury ended the historic six-year government intervention in the auto industry. The government closed the books on the $85 billionbailout in December.

The president plans to herald soaring auto sales and again point to his decision to rescue General Motors Co., Chrysler Group LLC and their finance arms.

While Ford benefited from government loan programs, it did not accept a bailout.

The Dearborn-based automaker invested $550 million in its Michigan Assembly plant, in part thanks to a low-cost $5.9 billion loan in September 2009 through the Energy Department's Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. The loan enabled Ford to upgrade 13 factories in six states.

David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, speculated that Ford was the safest bet as a venue this week to tout the auto industry turnaround, rather than GM, which has come under scrutiny for ignition problems.

Chrysler, now part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, is no longer a U.S.-headquartered company, but the president and administration officials have visited Chrysler facilities.

Obama added about $55 billion to the $25 billion auto rescue launched by President George W. Bush, and forced GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy; Chrysler was handed over to Fiat SpA as part of the deal. The rescue became one of the key achievements of his presidency and a focal point of his re-election bid.

The auto rescue was not without costs. The U.S. Treasury said it cost the federal government $9.26 billion. But the administration has insisted that the costs of letting automakers fail would have been far higher.

Michigan Assembly, the plant that once built the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator SUV, now builds the Ford Focus, C-Max Hybrid and C-Max Energi plug-in.

After a stop at the plant, where he will get a tour and be introduced by a Ford worker, Obama is scheduled to fly to Phoenix for an event on housing. He'll then head to Tennessee for a program on helping Americans go to college and helping to create more manufacturing jobs.

The trip to the suburban Wayne County is the president's 14th trip to Michigan since taking office; the most recent was Nov. 1 at Wayne State University. The purpose of this week's visit, said White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz, is "to highlight the workers in the resurgent American automotive and manufacturing sector now that the auto rescue has been completed, and the decision to save the auto industry and the more than 1 million jobs that went with it."

Obama has touted the auto bailout in hundreds of speeches. Last year, the White House invited GM CEO Mary Barra to sit in first lady Michelle Obama's box during the State of the Union address. Days later, GM's ignition switch scandal erupted, and the company has come under tremendous fire.

Auto sales have been booming, and low gas prices are spurring sales of profitable SUVs, crossovers and pickups that are U.S. automakers' strong suit. Final sales figures for 2014 are announced Monday and are expected to have reached about 16.5 million — the best performance since 2006.

The number of auto jobs, those working directly for automakers and parts makers, is up 164,000 since Obama took office, to 875,800.