President Barack Obama and his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-Bak were visiting a General Motors plant Friday to tout the benefits of a free trade pact as well as the US auto industry rescue.
The White House says Obama's auto bailout plan saved the jobs of more than one million Americans working for auto firms and related industries throughout the industrial midwest, a key battleground in the 2012 White House race.
And it trumpeted that Obama pressed ahead with the rescue and restructuring of two of the Big Three Detroit auto manufacturers even though it was deeply unpopular at the time.
Some "thought that wasn't worth it, others thought that it was fine basically ending the American automobile industry," said White House spokesman Jay Carney on board Air Force One on the flight to Michigan.
Carney added he believed the "folks in Michigan and around the region and around the country understand why (Obama) did what he did."
Obama and Lee were to tour a GM assembly plant in Orion township which was saved by the controversial auto industry bailout for GM and Chrysler that Obama ordered in 2009.
It assembles the new Chevrolet Sonic subcompact car, originally engineered for GM Korea but now built in Michigan.
Two years ago the plan had been set for closure, but now "the subcompact expertise and joint venture with GM Korea has saved the Orion plant and its 1,750 jobs," a White House official said earlier.
Since GM and Chrysler emerged from restructuring, the American auto industry has created 128,000 jobs, the official said, asking to remain anonymous.
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.
The visit to GM is also symbolic, because at one point the long-delayed free trade pact endorsed 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.
The deal will immediately reduce South Korean tariffs on US autos by half, from eight percent to four percent, and fully eliminate them within five years.
"As a former executive, President Lee will understand when I say that just as Americans buy Hyundais and Kias, I hope that South Koreans will buy more Fords, Chryslers and Chevys," Obama told reporters Thursday.
The deal has been criticized though by some which say it will flood the US market with South Korean goods, amid fears it would only hasten the bloodletting in the country's wounded manufacturing sector.
But Lee told a sumptuous state dinner at the White House late Thursday that Americans should have no fear.
The deal "is going to create a lot of good, decent jobs for the people of America. And this is a point that I want to prove by implementing this agreement," he said in his toast.
Among the guests at the dinner was Bob King, president of the powerful United Auto Workers which supported the deal.
In a Friday opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press, King wrote that Obama should be commended for the revised trade deal which was substantially altered from the one agreed under former president 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.
Under severe political pressure Obama said the deal would help US automakers and open Korean agricultural, aerospace and electronics markets.
Lee said he was confident the pact would also be ratified by South Korea's parliament in the "near future," although the South Korean opposition party has argued that it fails to protect small businesses and farmers.