The Tricky Politics of the Auto Bailout

Obama continues to make the auto bailout a key centerpiece of his campaign--but voters are wary.


Like a car salesman with a hot product, the Obama campaign is hoping to sell America on the resurrection of Detroit.

The campaign has launched an ad, released only days before the Republican primary there, that blasts all four GOP candidates for opposing the federal bailout, which actually began under former president George W. Bush. The ad is only running in the Wolverine state, where the president is easily beating the Republican challengers in the polls and support for the $80 billion bailout remains high. But it is clearly designed for a national audience—both voters as well as media and political elites, whose eyes are on Michigan.

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"The President has a good story to tell about saving Michigan jobs and while the nation's eyes are focused on Michigan his campaign is smart to highlight that Republicans would have let those jobs disappear and those families go bankrupt," one Democratic strategist says.

But it's not entirely clear that Obama's message is getting through. Americans remain divided about whether the $80 billion auto bailout was really worth it. According to a Gallup poll released today, 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the bailout, with the split largely along partisan lines. While 63 percent of Democrats approve of the program—which began under Bush, over opposition from Congressional Republicans—among Republicans, 73 percent disapprove. A majority of independent voters disapprove, as do those who live in the Midwest—showing that Obama still has to close the sale.

The reliance on the auto bailout is part of a broader effort to tie Obama to the rising economic tide. "He wants to make a point, take credit, and bring it back to being part of putting the economy back on track," says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. "I think it's part of an argument about bringing manufacturing jobs back, keeping them here, that it's not a lost cause."

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Detroit has come back to life, with General Motors recently reporting record profits. But that fact may play against the Obama administration's hopes of using the issue.

"These companies have made a lot of money, which sort of raises the question, did they really need to be bailed out?" Duffy noted.

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC