Obama to take in Detroit auto show as industry flourishes

President Barack Obama will take a victory lap Wednesday in Detroit with a tour of the North American International Auto Show.

The tour gives Obama the chance to highlight the industry's remarkable turnaround over the past seven years, and to remind the public that his administration came to the industry's rescue at a time when most Americans opposed any further financial assistance for Chrysler and General Motors.

"Critics said it was a `road to socialism' or a `disaster' waiting to happen," Obama said earlier this month. "But I'd make that bet again any day of the week."

At the same time, Obama is taking steps to make it clear he's not ignoring the water problems in nearby Flint, Michigan.

The president signed a federal emergency declaration over the weekend that allows up to $5 million in assistance and requires a 25 percent match in funding from the state. The White House also said it had appointed a Health and Human Services official to coordinate federal help provided to local responders and the state.

"Clearly, primary responsibility lies with state and local officials," White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters as Obama flew to Michigan. "But that's not stopping this president and the administration from doing what they can."

The crisis began in 2014 when a state-appointed emergency manager switched Flint from Detroit water to Flint River water to save money. The corrosive water caused lead to leach from old pipes. Flint returned to the Detroit system in October after elevated lead levels were discovered in children.

Hillary Clinton brought more attention to the problem -- and its potential political ramifications -- when she declared during Sunday's presidential candidate debate that "every single American should be outraged" by the water crisis. She said that "if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action."

Although Obama had no plans for a detour to Flint while in the state, he met with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver when she visited Washington Tuesday. The White House said Obama heard about the challenges facing the city's residents and businesses and reiterated his administration's support for state and local officials in their response.

As to the auto industry, the U.S. treasury invested about $80 billion in it during the last recession. After counting loan repayments, dividends and stock sales, the federal government recovered $70.5 billion.

Obama can't take all of the credit for the government's help. President George W. Bush initiated the auto bailout with more than $17 billion in short-term loans. Under ordinary circumstances, Bush said he wouldn't have favored intervening to prevent auto makers from going out of business, but in the midst of a financial crisis and recession, allowing the industry to collapse would send the country into a deeper and longer recession.

The Obama administration also provided additional capital to help Chrysler and G.M. continue operating as they restructured operations prior to and during a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding. The companies shuttered plants, laid-off workers and cut ties with thousands of dealerships.

Most Americans opposed providing a second round of government aid. A Gallup poll from February 2009 showed that about 58 percent opposed giving aid to automakers in danger of going bankrupt. Only about 41 percent supported the aid.

Even three years later as Americans looked back, a slight majority said they disapproved of the bailout, with Republicans opposing it by a 3-to-1 margin, Gallup said.

The auto show in Detroit is taking place as the industry enjoys record sales. Americans purchased nearly 17.5 million vehicles last year.

Automakers use the show to unveil new products and technology. The show drew more than 200,000 visitors on its opening weekend for the public and manufacturers introduced 55 vehicles.