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Obama, GOP both claim credit for Chrysler recovery

In this June 18, 2009 file photo, the Chrysler logo shines on the grille of a 2009 Chrysler Town & Country minivan at a Chrysler-Jeep dealership in the Colorado city of Centennial. Federal regulators say Chrysler is recalling nearly 600,000 Jeep Wranglers and Chrysler and Dodge minivans for brake or wiring problems. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Today's announcement by the Treasury Department that Chrysler has repaid, six years early, its $5.1 billion loan from the Troubled Asset

Relief Program, or TARP, gives Democrats a chance to resell a program that has been painted as representing all that is wrong with government.

Of all of the actions taken by the federal government in response to the economic collapse in the fall of 2008, the TARP may be the most contentious and most hated of them all. Some in the Tea Party say that the vote for TARP, aka the bank bailout, is what set the movement afoot. Many see the $700 billion loan program as first push of socialism, yet others see it as the pragmatic, responsible and successful approach to steady the economy and keep the country afloat.

President Obama came into office as TARP was getting underway and his administration implemented most of the program and set in place most of the federal assistance to the American auto companies General Motors and Chrysler.

Barack Obama Kokomo
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden arrive to tour the Chrysler Indiana Transmission Plant II in Kokomo, Ind., Nov. 23, 2010.
AP

"We cannot, and must not, and we will not let our auto industry simply vanish," he said in March, 2009 when he announced additional measures to help the companies to restructure, after the Bush Administration had given the companies emergency loans in late 2008. But to many, the actions then amounted to another bailout, and the White House was on the defensive at the time about spending more government money or been seen as taking over the auto companies.

"Let me be clear: The United States government has no interest in running GM. We have no intention of running GM. What we are interested in is giving GM an opportunity to finally make those much-needed changes that will let them emerge from this crisis a stronger and more competitive company," said the president only months after being sworn-in.

Today's announcement, and recent news that General Motors was hiring thousands of workers and expanding plants nationwide, gives the White House a chance to reset the conversation. And now, the Obama re-election campaign and its Democratic allies are on the offensive, making the point that the bailout, opposed by many Republicans, was successful and helped make General Motors and Chrysler strong again.

A new video from the Democratic National Committee (at left) hits top GOP presidential contenders for their opposition to helping the auto industry. The ad highlights "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" an editorial written by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the Wall Street Journal in November 2008 and shows interviews Romney, now a top Republican 2012 presidential contender, and others gave at the time.

"There's no question but that if you just write a check that you're going to see these companies go out of business ultimately," Romney said on CBS' "The Early Show" that November.

The ad shows a clip of another top GOP candidate, Tim Pawlenty, commenting on the bailout program. "It's a slippery slope - where does it end? You know, who's next? Does my friend who owns a small business in Minnesota, if he's having a hard time does he get a loan? So it's a slippery slope," he told PBS's Newshour in November 2008.

The DNC also shows Newt Gingrich, another GOP candidate, saying the Obama auto program made him "the most radical president in American history."

Finally, the ad makes this point: "Detroit Bankrupt: If Republicans were in charge, this would be the headline."

But the Democrats weren't done with just the web video. Following today's Chrysler announcement, two former Midwest governors had their turn to make the point that had any of three Republican candidates had their way at the time, the U.S. auto industry and its hundreds of thousands, if not millions of American jobs, would be gone.

"So when Michigan families needed support the most, Mitt Romney decided it was a good time to earn some conservative credentials and abandoned those who needed a pragmatic solution," said Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm in a statement.

"It was the president who stepped up. If Mitt Romney and these other Republicans had their way, Michigan families, and Midwestern families, would have been left out in the cold and would have lost their jobs and their way of life," she added. "These voters aren't going to forget who stood with them when needed it."

"I simply don't know what these folks who were opposed to this are going to say?" said former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. "How do they explain to Ohio's workers they didn't support this? People would not be working today if Gingrich and Romney and Pawlenty had their way. So we're asking those naysayers who want to be President, how are you going to explain your position when you come to Ohio and ask these workers for their vote? They've got some explaining to do."

Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

Not to be seen as wanting to kill the auto industry, the Romney campaign responded to the DNC saying that Romney argued for a plan of action that could have saved billions of dollars and achieved the same result.

"President Obama spent billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to bailout the auto industry. Mitt Romney argued that instead of a bailout, we should let the car companies go through a restructuring under the protection of the bankruptcy laws. This is the course the Obama administration eventually followed. If they had done it sooner, as Mitt Romney suggested, the taxpayers would have saved a lot of money," said Andrea Saul, spokesperson, Mitt Romney for President Exploratory Committee, in a statement.

For the White House, the resurgent auto industry gives them a chance to resell a misunderstood and much maligned program to the American voters and a chance to show that even though the bailout was unpopular, a successful auto industry has given a boost to the American economy and they hope a boost the president's re-election chances.

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    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.