TOLEDO, Ohio - Faced with a dismal new jobs report, President Barack Obama said Friday that the economy faces challenges ahead and "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.
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. Obama hasn't shied in the past from talking about specific numbers in informal settings.
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, economy.
At the Chrysler plant, Obama took some time before speaking to watch an assembly line where Jeep Wranglers were being assembled. He alluded approvingly to the vehicle in his remarks even though a report earlier this week from his National Economic Council criticized Chrysler for a portfolio that relies heavily on large vehicles and light trucks.
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. "We refused to let that happen."
Both the Bush and Obama administrations spent $80 billion to bail out General Motors and Chrysler and help guide them through bankruptcy. The Obama administration says it will recoup more than 80 percent of that and Obama defended the bailouts as money well spent.
A report by the National Economic Council this week said the taxpayers' loss from the bailout will total about $14 billion, much less than Treasury initially anticipated.
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 Chrysler plant before Obama spoke, Rick Shortridge, 53, of Oregon, Ohio, who has worked 28 years for the automaker, said the outlook has changed dramatically since Chrysler went into bankruptcy two years ago.
"It's a lot more relaxed," he said. "It was real stressful then for a long time."
"I thought my future was going to be saying `do you want fries with that,' " he said, adding he was grateful Obama had stood with the auto industry.
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 ordered one of their famous chili dogs with mustard, onion and cheese, insisted on paying himself, and shook hands all around. And after his speech he stopped by a hardware store to buy gardening gloves for Michelle Obama, then went to greet a crowd in a working class neighborhood near the Chrysler plant.
GM received about $50 billion in the U.S. bailout, and the federal
government has recovered about half of that by selling a portion of its ownership stake in the company. It intends to sell its remaining 26.5 percent share later on.
The 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 auto 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.