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Obama, Lee Myung-bak Visit General Motors Orion Assembly Plant

Dan Robinson

October 17, 2011

President Barack Obama used a factory visit on Friday to highlight benefits for U.S. workers and the economy of the free-trade agreement with South Korea ratified by Congress this week. President Obama brought South Korea's president with him on a tour of a General Motors plant in the midwest state of Michigan.

President Barack Obama with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Detroit, Michigan, October 14, 2011

The visit was designed to spotlight two key achievements President Barack Obama can now point to as he faces what he has acknowledged is an uphill climb to re-election 2012.

Decisions he made early in his presidency helped rescue the U.S. auto industry, saving tens of thousands of jobs, something he mentions in virtually every campaign speech across the country.

Obama also made approval of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and similar deals for Colombia and Panama a priority, though the road to ratification by Congress was fraught with difficulties.

The plant in Orion, Michigan with its 1,750 workers was to have closed under auto industry restructuring, but survived and now produces a Chevrolet model originally engineered in South Korea.

With South Korean President Lee Myung-bak by his side, Obama repeated a slogan he has often used about leveling the playing field and boosting exports.

"If Americans can buy Kias and Hyundais from Korea, then I know Koreans should be able to buy some Fords, and Chryslers and Chevys that are made right here in the United States of America," said President Obama.

The White House says the Korea trade deal will support at least 70,000 U.S. jobs, though critics assert it will have a minimal impact on improving the nation's nine-percent unemployment.

Asked by a reporter if Obama could assure the U.S. auto industry that American exports would be brought into parity with those from South Korea, Press Secretary Jay Carney could not supply any figures, but said the whole point is to open that market to U.S. automakers.

United Auto Workers President Bob King, who toured the plant with President Obama, said changes the president insisted on ensure greater access to the South Korean market and protect against "harmful surges" of Korean automotive imports.

Wearing a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, and using the term "Motor City" to describe nearby Detroit, President Lee sought to ease fears the free-trade agreement will result in more jobs leaving the United States.

"I want to give you this promise to you, and that is that the [Korea - U.S. Free Trade Agreement] will not take away any of your jobs, rather it will create more jobs for you and your family, and it is going to protect your jobs and this is the pledge that I give you today," said President Lee Myung-bak.

President Obama will continue highlighting the success of his U.S. auto industry rescue even as his major jobs legislation faces obstacles in Congress.

The bill was voted down by the U.S. Senate this week, but Obama vows to continue pressing Congress to pass key parts of it, while Republicans promote proposals they say will be more effective.

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