That's not how Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels sees it.
He says the GM and Chrysler bailout was a clear case of favoritism. "I was all over this state visiting with companies large and small that were in extremely difficult shape and nobody in Washington came around to wipe out their debts or write them a check," he says. "There was just an unfairness about it."
He and other critics maintain the rescue violated bankruptcy laws. Richard Mourdock, Indiana's treasurer, unsuccessfully sued to stop Chrysler's sale to Fiat SpA on behalf of three state pension and construction funds representing teachers, police, and others.
He argued the sale of the majority of the automaker's assets favored unsecured stakeholders, such as the UAW, ahead of secured debtors in the funds. "How many of us believe that the U.S. government should pick winners and losers?" he asks. "Nobody agrees with that."
Mourdock, now a U.S. Senate candidate in the GOP primary, estimates the funds lost about $7 million during the bankruptcy.
Obama has trumpeted the auto recovery as one of his signature achievements — Vice President Joe Biden recently said his re-election message should be "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive" — but the public is less enamored.
A recent Gallup poll found 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the bailout, compared to 44 percent who like it. There's a stark party line difference: 63 percent of Democrats approve, 73 percent of Republicans oppose it.
No Republican presidential candidate has been a more vocal critic than Mitt Romney, whose father, George, ran the long-defunct American Motors Corp. In a 2008 op-ed in the New York Times titled, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," he called for a managed bankruptcy, followed by some government assistance, such as guaranteeing warranties
In that piece, he predicted if U.S. automakers received the bailout "you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won't go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed."
At least in the near term, his fears have not been realized. GM reported a record $7.6 billion profit last year. Chrysler, now privately held and majority owned by Fiat, earned $183 million in 2011, its first net profit since 1997.
In advance of Tuesday's Michigan primary, Romney defended his position in a Detroit News op-ed, calling the Obama administration's plan "crony capitalism" and a payback to his union supporters. He said the auto industry would have fared better without the intervention.
Sean McAlinden, an economist at the Center for Automotive Research, which receives funding from the automakers, says the union did get "one of the better deals in the history of bankruptcy" — its members' pensions were untouched and the UAW retirees health care trust funds own part of the companies.
But he points out that the UAW also agreed to a series of trade-offs and concessions. New workers, for instance, earn a much lower wage.
And McAlinden is among those who dispute claims by Romney and others that the industry would have survived with a managed bankruptcy.
"This sounds like a wonderfully sensible approach — except it's sheer fantasy," Steven Rattner, chief adviser to Obama's auto task force, wrote last week in a New York Times op-ed. He says there was no private financing available and without federal dollars, the automakers wouldn't have been able to pursue Chapter 11 bankruptcy and "would have been forced to cease production, close their doors and lay off virtually all workers once their coffers ran dry."
Those closings, he says, would have rippled to auto suppliers, and ultimately trucking companies, restaurants and other parts of the economy.
David Cole, chairman emeritus of the auto center, agrees.
"It has nothing to do with favoritism," he says. "It has to do with 'no choice-ism.' ... The people who say we should have stayed out have no clue to what the risk was. It would have precipitated a dramatic job loss, which would have likely pushed the rest of the economy into a full-scale depression."