KOKOMO, Ind. — President Barack Obama promoted the revival of the U.S. auto industry Tuesday, taking his pitch to the heart of the Rust Belt, where a bruising economy has taken its toll on Democrats.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden toured a rebounding Chrysler transmission plant in this hard-hit industrial city, holding it up as a symbol of the "hope and confidence" of a better economy, even while millions are still unemployed and hurting.
"We're coming back," Obama said. "We're on the move."
Kokomo got a big boost from Chrysler on Tuesday when the automaker announced it plans to pump $843 million more into three factories to build a new front-wheel-drive transmission.
Chrysler said the investment will pay for equipment to modernize the two Kokomo transmission factories and a casting plant. It will extend the life of the plants and help retain nearly 2,250 jobs, equipping the plants to build a new front-wheel-drive transmission for unspecified future vehicles, the company said.
General Motors, meanwhile, will bring back nearly 200 laid-off workers at an engine plant in Flint, Mich., according to a person familiar with GM's plans.
Declared one of "America's fastest-dying towns" by Forbes magazine in 2008, Kokomo hit bottom in June 2009 when unemployment in the medium-sized city in north-central Indiana reached 20.4 percent. The city's unemployment rate is still higher than the national average, but it had dropped by nearly 8 percentage points to 12.7 percent in September.
The visit represented the White House's new focus on showcasing the results behind the Obama administration's politically contentious economic stimulus and the bailouts of the two U.S. automakers.
"We made the decision to stand with you because we had confidence in the American workers, and today we know that was the right decision," the president said in Kokomo.
For Obama, the visit was also a chance to promote the $800 billion economic stimulus he pushed through Congress in the early days of his presidency.
Obama went out of his way Tuesday to connect with the public, at one point stopping at a small bakery to order pumpkin rolls, apple fritters, cinnamon rolls and doughnuts.
In his speech at the Chrysler plant, Obama said that in his "obsessive focus on policy, I neglected some things that matter a lot to people."
Among them, he said, "was getting out of Washington and spending more time shaping public opinion and being in a conversation with the American people about why I was making the choices I was making."
Despite signs of recovery, the economy is growing too slowly to reduce the nation's unemployment rate, which stands stubbornly at 9.6 percent, and Obama and his fellow Democrats felt the repercussions in this month's midterm elections.
In Indiana, Democrats lost a Senate seat and two House seats and were driven into the minority in the state Legislature.
Democrats also suffered major losses in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois — all states that Obama carried in his 2008 presidential run.