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Obama: Auto industry "leading the way" in America's comeback

Before a speech touting the productivity of the big three auto companies, President Obama admired the handiwork of a bright red Mustang, the latest iteration of Ford's iconic muscle car: "This is an American car right here, this Mustang," he said, as he stood next to the car. "That's beautiful."

"Joe Biden saw this and he flipped out," said Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman Bill Ford, as he showed Mr. Obama around the Detroit facility.

Obama hops in a bright red Mustang during Ford assembly plant tour

"Yeah, yeah, I know," the president replied. "He got his aviator glasses on?"

The President traveled to the heart of the American auto industry on Wednesday to lay out an optimistic message ahead of his State of the Union address later this month, pointing to the performance of U.S. auto companies as evidence of America's broader economic rebound.

"Thanks to the hard work of people like you, America's coming back," Mr. Obama told employees at the Ford plant.

The president said the auto industry and the broader manufacturing sector are "leading the way" in the longest stretch of uninterrupted job growth in American history.

"You're helping rebuild the middle class for the 21st century," he said. "Because of you, manufacturing has a future in this country."

The president's remarks previewed a central theme of his upcoming State of the Union address, which he will deliver before a joint session of Congress on January 20.

"Now that we've got some calmer waters...if we all pitch in, then we can make sure that this rising tide is actually lifting all of the boats, not just some," he said. "That's going to be the focus of my State of the Union in a couple of weeks: building on the progress that we've already made."

The factory the president spoke at is the first of its kind: a flexible manufacturing facility that produces both gas/electric hybrid vehicles and plug-in electric cars. The president said such technological advances - and the skilled workers to take advantage of them - could lay the groundwork for more prosperity to come.

Obama: No more “train and pray” approach to job training
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He cited the expansion of apprenticeships in the year since his administration announced a $100 million apprenticeship grant competition designed to expand the most successful worker-training programs.

He also hailed the official end of the auto industry bailout, a costly endeavor initiated during his first year in office to pull General Motors and Chrysler back from the brink of potential liquidation.

"Last month the rescue of the auto industry officially came to an end," he said. "The auto companies have now repaid taxpayers every dime and more of what my administration invested.....you paid the taxpayers back with your hard work, with your dedication."

The president said the auto industry bailout was "not popular," recalling polls taken at the time that gauged public support for the rescue plan at around 10 percent. But he argued it was worth saving the companies, despite public opposition. "The auto industry has proven that any comeback is possible," he said.

During a press gaggle on Air Force One en route to Detroit, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the president's remarks weren't intended to be a "victory lap," but merely an opportunity to highlight some good economic news.

"I do hope that this is a useful opportunity for us to highlight the momentum of the American economy," he said.

Earnest also rebutted concerns that pending free trade agreements could undermine the competitiveness of the auto industry. He recalled that people voiced similar concerns about a free trade agreement with South Korea that was ratified in 2011, but said the auto industry has only gotten stronger since that time. In negotiations over the transatlantic and transpacific free trade pacts, Earnest said, Mr. Obama would again insist on a deal that protects American workers and manufacturers.