Obama touts blue collar values to Michigan voters

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama stumped in Michigan Tuesday from the inside of a D.C convention hall, telling auto union members that he shared their values, and that heartless Republicans would have killed the U.S. auto industry and one million jobs.

But he stepped on his own message by touting his support for the battery-powered Chevy Volt, whose buyers have an average income of $170.000.

His animated, accented and practiced performance was delivered as the state’s voters pick their GOP presidential candidate, and was aimed at blue collar workers in Michigan and other states.

The crafted speech combined praise for the values of blue-collar workers with praise for his own progressive policies, and an accent that repeatedly dropped the ‘g’s, for example, saying “you’re buildin’ better cars.”

His speech also slammed his GOP rivals, and cherry-picked facts that downplayed the cost of his policies. Those costs include $5 trillion in deficit spending, high unemployment and an economy that has recovered only half as fast during previous recessions.

His emphasis on blue collar values is aimed at narrowing the wide gap between Obama’s 50-plus percent support among professional-class graduates and his low-30s support among blue collar workers who dislike his social progressivism, secular and liberal goals, and his emphasis on federal direction. That cultural gap has repeatedly caused the defeat of many Democratic candidates, and is expected to hurt Obama in the November election.

“You want to talk about values? Hard work, that’s a value,” Obama declared. “Looking out for one another, that’s a value. The idea that we’re all in it together, that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper, that is a value,” he said, ending his speech with a repeated religious reference.

“God bless you and the work you do, and God bless America,” said Obama, who lost support in 2008, when he was seen dismissing Americans who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant.”

Obama’s emphasis on values even prompted him to tout the autos once dismissed by progressives as so-called “gas-guzzlers.”

“I’ve seen [the industry’s recovery] at Ford’s Chicago Assembly, where workers are building a new Explorer… the Ford workers in Kansas City coming on [shift] to make the F-150 — America’s best-selling truck — a more fuel-efficient truck,” Obama said.

However, he did reveal his cultural distance from blue-collar workers by touting the widely derided Volt auto.

The battery-and-gas powered auto was designed by General Motors to burnish its appeal to higher-income buyers, including university graduates such as Obama. Free-market advocates portray it as a failure following a year of slow sales, despite $7,500 subsidies to its wealthy buyers who average $170,000 in income.

“The Secret Service wouldn’t let me drive it, but I liked sitting in it,” Obama declared about his visit to the Volt factory. “It was nice, I bet it drives real good, and five years from now when I’m not president any more, I’ll buy one and drive it myself,” he said.

Obama tried to contrast his support for the workers with a claim that the GOP politicians dislike workers. “What is it about working men and women they find so offensive?” Obama asked, while attributing the question to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was the author of many immigration, environmental and cultural laws that are strongly disliked by many blue collar workers.

The GOP’s attitudes, he said, are “part of that same old you’re-on-your-own philosophy that says we should just leave everyone to fend for themselves [and] let the most powerful do as they please.”

To drive home the point, Obama portrayed his work as a left-wing community organizer of urban African-Americans in Chicago as direct support for industrial workers.

“Don’t forget I got my start standing with working folks who’d lost jobs and hope when nearby steel plants closed down, because I didn’t like the idea that they didn’t have anybody to fight for them,” said Obama, who attended Harvard to win a law degree. “That still drives me today… I’ll promise you this: as long as you’ve got an ounce of fight left in you, I’ll have a ton of fight left in me.”

Many GOP politicians and their supporters say their preferred free-market policies and moderate social views allow Americans to prosper and govern their own lives, without approval or disapproval from centralized planners in Washington, D.C.

Obama used much of his speech to tout the auto industry’s partial recovery.

In 2007, sales almost reached 17 million autos, but crashed to 13.2 million in 2008, and then fell again to 10.4 million in 2009.

Last year, in 2011, sales slowly climbed up to 12.8 million vehicles, still down by almost a third since 2007. “The economy is getting stronger. The recovery is speeding up. And now is the time to keep our foot on the gas,” Obama declared.

Obama also used his speech to slash at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and to dig at former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

“With the economy in complete freefall, there weren’t any private companies or investors willing to take a chance on the auto industry… Some even said we should ‘let Detroit go bankrupt,’” Obama said, citing a New York Times headline on an op-ed by Romney.

Romney’s article called for the auto companies to undergo a routine court-overseen bankruptcy process that would make them more competitive, but Obama instead used the headline to portray Romney as willing to let the Michigan-centered industry die.

“More than one million Americans across the country would have lost their jobs in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression… across the Midwest, it would have been another Great Depression,” Obama declared.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said midday that Obama’s speech was “not at all” a campaign speech.

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