In case you were wondering just how central the successful bailout of the auto industry will be in making Obama’s case for reelection, the White House is circulating a new set of talking points to outside allies and surrogates, instructing them on how to place the argument in its larger political context. The key bit:
· President Obama took office during the worst recession in a generation and nowhere was the devastation felt harder than in the American auto industry — which was shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs and crushing entire communities.
· Facing this situation head on, the President made a bold and, at the time, politically unpopular choice — he stood with Chrysler, its workers and the communities whose economies depend on the industry.
· By standing by a tough but fair restructuring, the President and his Administration helped provide the auto industry with a solid foundation to grow and prosper as the economy recovers.
· This was a tough decision, and came with significant risk. But if there was a credible chance to let these American workers succeed, the President was not willing to walk away from them or from the American auto industry.
There are a few interesting points here worth noting. First, as the above talking points show — note the repetition of the word “tough” — Obama’s decision to bail out the auto industry in the face of intense criticism fits into the story Obama advisers are trying to tell: That Obama is a decisive leader who accomplishes “big things.”
Second, virtually every one of the leading 2012 GOP contenders got this wrong. Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich — to a man — are all on record predicting that the bailout would be disastrous to the auto industry. Precisely the opposite happened.
Third, the successful rescue of the auto industry is an important weapon for Obama in the larger ideological battle that will drive this campaign — the one over the proper role of government and the efficacy of government spending in righting the economy. Conservatives critized Obama’s decision in starkly ideological terms, suggesting it amounted to socialism, a war on capitalism, and worse. They were wrong. With Obama still very vulnerable on the economy, and with Republicans casting Obama’s agenda as Big Spending Liberalism run amok, here is an unambiguous example of Federal interference in the economy resulting in a clear success story.
It remains to be seen whether Obama can use this success to blunt GOP attacks on his greatest vulnerability: The still-ailing economy. The question Obama will ask is the one Paul Krugman framed recently: How can people who got this one so wrong lecture us on what it takes to create prosperity?