South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak delivered an unusual and enthusiastic political boost to President Barack Obama, praising his salvation of the US auto industry in the key electoral battleground state of Michigan.
The visiting leader of a nation once blamed for undermining US automakers shed his jacket and donned a Detroit Tigers baseball hat to speak with workers gathered at a General Motors plant.
The Orion plant -- and its 1,750 jobs -- was saved from closure thanks to the 2009 bailout and engineers from GM's Korean unit who helped find a profitable way to build the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic in the United States.
"More than anyone else in this factory, I think it's President Obama who's happiest to see this factory open," Lee said through a translator.
Lee, who was head of Korean automaker Hyundai before he entered politics, praised his "closest friend" Obama for the politically risky bailout of GM and Chrysler and said the decision had paid off.
"Soon folks, the Motor City is going to come back and revive its past glory. I have all the confidence you are going to do that," Lee told cheering autoworkers.
Obama took a swipe at Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney, who once again criticized the auto bailout at a debate this week.
"One of the first things I did as president was to save the US auto industry from collapse," said Obama.
"There were a lot of politicians who said it wasn't worth the time and it wasn't worth the money. There are some who still say that. They should come and tell that to the workers here at Orion."
The government's investment has "paid off," Obama said, noting that hundreds of thousands of jobs were saved, the US auto industry is "more competitive and more profitable than it has been in years" and that taxpayers are being repaid.
Obama has been traveling the nation pushing his jobs plan as the United States wrestles with 9.1 percent unemployment and struggles to emerge from one of the most painful recessions in decades.
He is fighting hard for re-election in the November 2012 polls in which the faltering economy is set to be the top issue on voters' minds and on Friday returned to the hopeful rhetoric and slogan of his 2008 campaign.
"Yes, times are tough. Times are tough and they've been tougher in Detroit than just about anyplace else. But we've made it through tough times before. We do not quit," Obama told the cheering crowd.
"Because for every cynic that's out there running around saying it can't be done, there are a whole bunch of folks that are saying, "Yes, we can."
The two presidents used the plant tour to tout the benefits of a newly signed free trade pact, which has come under fire from those who fear it will flood the US market with South Korean goods and hasten the bloodletting in the country's wounded manufacturing sector.
"I am here with President Obama today because I want to give this promise to you: the KORUS FTA will not take away any of your jobs," Lee said. "Rather it will create more jobs for you and your family and it is going to protect your jobs. This is the pledge I give you today."
The visit to GM was also symbolic because at one point the long-delayed free trade pact, passed by Congress on Wednesday, was held up by a dispute between Seoul and the Obama administration over auto market access.
But the two sides eventually thrashed out an agreement on eliminating non-tariff barriers that restricted US access to South Korea's auto market and raised the cost of producing American vehicles for sale there.
In an opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press, United Auto Workers president Bob King wrote that Obama should be commended for the revised trade deal, which was substantially altered from the one agreed under his predecessor George W. Bush.
"The UAW strongly believes that the revised agreement, along with Obama's earlier financial assistance to the auto industry during the 2009 financial crisis, will not only support the nation's economic recovery, but will improve our economic relationship with South Korea," he wrote.
Obama has said the trade pact would boost American exports by up to $11 billion and support 70,000 US jobs.
Sandra Dyer, 32, was among the workers who cheered during the speech. She said she was grateful Obama took the political risks that saved GM.
"Anybody that votes for Republicans, if you aren't already rich you are a fool -- it just doesn't make sense," Dyer told AFP. "The Republicans are crazy. All they want is rich or poor -- no middle class."