Nicole Jones wanted to make sure President Obama got a personal “Thank You” for helping save her job at Chrysler Group LLC’s Toledo Assembly complex in 2009.
So she had “President Obama” printed on one side and “Thank You” on the other of a bright red T-shirt — a simple sentiment shared at many points across Toledo on Friday as the President spent four hours marking the transition of the city’s largest industrial employer from a bankrupt company dependent on government assistance to an automaker now completely held in private hands.
“I wore it just to let President Obama know how grateful and appreciative we were that he fought for us when everybody else was against us,” Ms. Jones said.
During a whirlwind visit — including a surprise lunch at Rudy’s Hot Dog in the city’s Five Points neighborhood, a stop at a North Toledo hardware store, and a speech to hundreds of cheering auto workers at Chrysler’s Wrangler plant — the President took every opportunity to point out how much better off Toledo is with Chrysler still in business.
His decision in 2009 to wash Chrysler and General Motors Co. through expedited bankruptcies and lend them billions of federal dollars had been controversial, but it ultimately saved more than a million jobs, he argued, and kept a domestic auto industry in the United States.
“We could have just let U.S. automakers go into an uncontrolled free fall. And that would have triggered a cascade of damage all across the country,” the President told about 350 workers and dignitaries in the plant. “If we let Chrysler and GM fail, plants like this would have shut down, then dealers and suppliers across the country would have shriveled up, then Ford and other automakers could have failed, too, because they wouldn’t have had the suppliers that they needed.
“And by the time the dominoes stopped falling, more than a million jobs, and countless communities, and a proud industry that helped build America’s middle class for generations wouldn’t have been around anymore.”
Later, he said, “Toledo, you showed that this was a good investment, betting on America’s workers.”
It was a presidential economics lesson that required no additional explanation for auto workers in the audience.
“It means too much. That’s why I cried and gave him a hug,” said Adel Kamal, a 17-year Chrysler employee who sobbed openly during the President’s remarks. “Last summer was OK, but now we’re doing very well. That’s why we could pay the government back early. That’s why I’m wearing my ‘PAID’ sticker,” that was provided to Chrysler employees last week by the company when it paid back $7.6 billion in government loans to the United States and Canada.
Jill Opial, an assembly worker and second-generation Jeep employee, introduced President Obama to a crowd of her co-workers. Her mother retired after 30 years at the plant, and her husband, Chris, also is a Jeep employee. In his opening remarks, President Obama said Ms. Opial’s stepfather also retired from the Jeep plant.
“I am proud to be part of this company that has achieved so much and shown the President that the chance he took on Chrysler was a good one,” Ms. Opial said in her introduction. “If not for President Obama’s decision, America’s auto industry would have been at risk and good-paying jobs would have been lost.”
Still, Mr. Obama’s visit came the same day the U.S. Labor Department announced that a mere 54,000 jobs were added nationally last month and that the unemployment rate climbed to 9.1 percent from 9 percent the month before.
Mr. Obama was given a brief private tour of the Wrangler line by Mauro Pino, the plant manager for Chrysler’s Toledo Assembly complex, and Walt Schwiefert, a committeeman with the United Auto Workers.
“The thing that he said that resonated with me was when he said that ‘We don’t just want the auto industry to survive, we want it to thrive,’ and as soon as he said that, I thought to myself that that’s what we’re doing here in Toledo. Stay tuned,” said Bruce Baumhower, president of UAW Local 12, which represents Chrysler workers at the complex. “I think our members liked his message, and they really liked his personality.”
Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne addressed a group of reporters after the President’s speech, but did not make comments during the event at the Wrangler plant.
“It’s the President of the United States, and I just run a car company,” Mr. Marchionne said. “It’s his visit.”
Mr. Marchionne said in January that Toledo would see a significant announcement of new investment and jobs within the first half of 2011 and that the chances “were better than 50 percent” that workers making Wranglers in Toledo soon could be making a Jeep-branded pickup as well. He declined to say Friday when an announcement might be made.
Ken Lortz, the UAW’s Ohio regional director whose office is in Maumee, said President Obama’s visit provided a chance for Chrysler workers to show their gratitude for government loans “that kept the industry alive.” He greeted the President at the door of the plant, along with Mr. Marchionne and UAW Vice President General Holiefield.
Though there were no Republican politicians on-hand at the event, Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine criticized Mr. Obama’s “victory lap” in Toledo by noting the newly released national unemployment numbers, which showed sparse hiring and an increase in the rate to 9.1 percent in May, up from 9 percent the month before.
“Today’s economic news further underscores the fact that unemployed workers in Ohio aren’t looking for a presidential campaign stop, they need jobs,” Mr. DeWine said.
“With one in 10 Toledo residents out of a job and national unemployment again on the rise, Barack Obama would best serve the city, and our state, by joining [House] Speaker [John] Boehner [of Ohio] in offering serious proposals which focus upon deficit spending restraint and domestic job creation.”
The President’s visit began at 11:28 a.m. under a cloudless blue sky and the watchful eyes of hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes security officers as Air Force One touched down at Toledo Express Airport. Accompanied by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), the President was greeted at the bottom of the stairs by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, all of whom joined Mr. Obama in the 18-vehicle motorcade.
Hold the ketchup
On the way to the Chrysler plant, the motorcade exited I-75 in front of the now-vacant 70-acre former Jeep Parkway site and proceeded up Haverhill Drive to Rudy’s Hot Dog at Sylvania and Lewis avenues, where workers screamed with shock and excitement as they served Mr. Obama french fries, a bowl of chili, and a pair of chili dogs with mustard, onions, cheese — and absolutely no ketchup.
Mr. Obama jokingly chastised Miss Kaptur for ordering ketchup on her hot dogs.
“As an aficionado of hot dogs,” he said, “you should never put ketchup on a hot dog.”
He then plunked down two $20 bills to pay the tab for all four politicians.
After delivering his remarks at Chrysler and greeting workers there, the President and the motorcade drove to the other end of the massive Toledo Assembly complex, where Mr. Obama shook hands with several dozen first-shift auto workers as they left the Wrangler paint facility to start their weekend.
One after another, the workers grasped Mr. Obama’s hand and either greeted him warmly or offered him thanks for his role in saving their employer.
“Thank you for bailing out Chrysler,” said one female worker. “God bless you,” said another man.
He told Mr. Obama: “Thanks for saving my job.” The President responded: “I appreciate your service, Mr. Dandar.”
As it left the Chrysler complex, the motorcade made an unannounced stop at Fred’s Pro Hardware, a small neighborhood hardware store about a quarter mile south at Stickney Avenue and Pearl Street, where Mr. Obama spent $10.56 on two pairs of garden gloves clad in green latex that he said were for the First Lady. He talked to store manager Matthew Wamsley about how his business picked back up after Chrysler workers went back to their jobs in the summer of 2009.
While in the hardware store’s north Toledo neighborhood — blocks from the site of an infamous 2005 race riot sparked by a planned neo-Nazi rally — the nation’s first black Commander-in-Chief jogged across Stickney Avenue to shake hands with scores of stunned onlookers gathered on the sidewalk.
As he limped with his right leg in a soft cast, James Johnson shouted to others in the crowd, “I shook the President’s hand! I’m not going to wash this hand, ever,” Mr. Johnson said excitedly. “I’m 55, and that’s the first time I shook a president’s hand.”
After several minutes of shaking hands, Mr. Obama climbed back in his giant black Cadillac Presidential limousine and the motorcade returned to Toledo Express, where the President boarded Air Force One and took off at 3:14 p.m.
Blade staff writers Sheena Harrison, Tyrel Linkhorn, Zoe Gorman, and Traci Tillman contributed to this report.
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6091