DETROIT, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- When President Barack Obama first provided critical life support to the American automobile industry in 2009, some critics blasted the move. Now, nearly seven years later, Obama says the United States is getting an incredible return that investment.
During a tour of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit Wednesday, the commander in-chief got a close-up look at some of Detroit's latest designs and technology -- products that likely wouldn't exist today had the city's primary industry been totaled following the financial crisis of 2009-2010.
Then, the "Big Three" American automakers were on the verge of collapse -- as General Motors and Fiat Chrysler each declared bankruptcy and Ford Motor Company was still hemorrhaging cash from major losses posted in years prior, including a record $12.7 billion loss for fiscal 2006 alone.
As hundreds of thousands of people lost jobs and the American economy lagged, the U.S. and Canadian governments combined to provide the largest bailout in automotive history -- $85 billion dollars.
Now, as he puts the wraps on his final year in office, Obama says the auto industry's financial troubles of that era are firmly in the rear view mirror.
Before speaking to a crowd at the United Auto Workers-General Motors Human Resources Center Wednesday afternoon, Obama toured the show and even climbed into a few of the Motor City's latest vehicles.
"I already drive in a great American car, which we affectionately know as 'The Beast.' Next Year I've got to give it up ... so I figured I needed to do a little browsing now at the Detroit Auto Show," he said. "If you're looking for the world's best cars, and the workers who make those cars, you need to be in Detroit, Michigan. That's why I'm here."
Among the strides the American motor industry has made in recent years, he noted, is a substantial increase in jobs -- more than 646,000 since mid-2009, the largest growth on record.
"My first brand new car with the brand new car smell was a Jeep Cherokee, and I thought I was a bad man when I was in that car," Obama added. "I could not be prouder of this industry and the road we have traveled together. ... Think about what you have fought through, it wasn't that long ago that a crisis that started on Wall Street sparked a great recession on Main Street, and it cost millions of Americans their jobs, their homes, the saving they had worked a lifetime to build.
"The American auto industry, the beating heart of American manufacturing, was flat-lining. That's where we were when I took office. ... We had a choice to make. With the economy in a freefall, the markets frozen, there were no private companies, no private investors who were going to step up and take a chance on you."
The U.S. auto industry has doubled production and auto sales peaked at an all-time high in 2015, with 17.4 million American-made vehicles sold, the White House noted in a fact sheet discussing Obama's Detroit trip. Also, it adds, exports of American vehicles are up nearly 90 percent since 2009.
"We said that the auto industry had to truly change, not just pretend like it was changing," Obama said of the terms of the federal bailout package. But I said at the time, 'I did not run for president to be popular. I ran for president to do what needed to be done.' And I placed my bet on you.
"After visiting auto plants across the Midwest and seeing what you have done firsthand, let me tell you, I would make that same bet any day of the week because today factories are humming, business is booming, the American auto industry is all the way back. All the way back."
In addition to boosting production, sales and jobs, Obama also praised the industry for making vehicles more fuel efficient than ever.
"You are thinking about cars that people are going to want tomorrow. When I was over at the auto show, I saw plug-in hybrids and electrics, fuel efficient cars that can protect our planet, save people money at the pump ... self-driving cars that one day could prevent accidents and save lives.
"That's the kind of spirit that is going to lead us forward."
Before concluding his speech, Obama recalled a letter he received in 2009 from a 13-year-old girl named Brianna, who became upset after seeing members of her family laid off by the struggling auto industry. Now 19, and in attendance Wednesday, Brianna was cited by Obama as an example of the growth of American auto manufacturing.
"Those stories are multiplying all across the country," Obama said. "I remember, and I read Brianna's letters, and that's why I've got so much confidence in the future. Because of you. ... I have faith in you and when I leave this office I will still have faith in you."