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Published: Thursday, 5/15/2008

Obama vows aid for auto industry

FROM THE BLADE'S NEWS SERVICES

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Sen. Barack Obama's first visit to Michigan in nearly a year included a pledge to fight for a rebound in Michigan's battered auto industry.

"We are taking steps in the right direction, and American automakers are on the move," Mr. Obama told a friendly crowd in Warren, where he unveiled a manufacturing agenda that includes billions of dollars in potential aid for the Detroit car companies.

Yesterday's daylong campaign swing through the state came 10 months after Mr. Obama's last visit to Michigan and a year after a May, 2007, speech to the Detroit Economic Club in which he hammered the Detroit Three automakers for failing to embrace fuel efficiency.

That speech was seen by many in the industry as an unfair attack and by many Michigan Democrats as a potential challenge for Mr. Obama if he became the party's nominee.

But at the Warren forum, Mr. Obama praised General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., and Chrysler LLC for making major progress, and in an interview afterward told the Detroit News that his remarks a year ago had been misinterpreted.

"It has gotten a bad rap in some cases, because I think people noticed me calling on the automakers to get out in front of change; but what they didn't notice was how committed I was to investing in the U.S. auto industry," he said.

Since his address, he said, the carmakers have made many of the moves he advocated.

Mr. Obama said the heavy loss of manufacturing jobs is one of the nation's greatest struggles, but offered hope that attention and investment from Washington can help turn around the auto industry.

"I'm running for president to make sure cars of the future are made where they've always been made, right here in Michigan," he said. "The fight for American manufacturing is the fight for America's future. And I believe it's the fight that America will win."

He repeated his criticisms about the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, which expanded trade among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, eliminating most tariffs on a wide range of products from agriculture to cars to computers.

Last night, Mr. Obama was at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids. Police estimated that 15,000 gathered at the hockey arena, which has an official seating capacity of just under 11,000.

Yesterday morning, Mr. Obama toured Chrysler's Sterling Heights plant, which stamps metal parts for several vehicles.

Before touring the plant, Mr. Obama met privately with Chrysler President and Vice Chairman Jim Press and UAW Local 1264 President Bob Stuglin.

The meeting was about 15 minutes longer than expected, and Chrysler spokesman Ed Saenz characterized the conversation as "robust."

During the tour, Gary Stuglin, UAW Local 1264 shop chief steward, whose brother is president of the local, said he has been impressed with Mr. Obama since the beginning of the campaign. "I think he's a good guy, and I think he would make a great president."

The UAW has not endorsed a presidential candidate and did not respond to e-mails and phone calls comment. In February, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said the union would seek a high-profile role in the election this year and said the next president ought to be a Democrat.



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