President Obama on Friday strongly defended his policies, especially the federal bailout of the auto industry, and pledged to fight to improve the economy, which still faces challenges to recover from a grueling recession that he inherited.
Speaking at a Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, the president indirectly noted the poor jobs report that was released earlier in the day. The unemployment rate rose to 9.1% in May, but even more striking, the net increase in jobs was just 54,000, a relatively lackluster number.
"There are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery. We're going to pass through some rough terrain, that even a Wrangler would have a hard time with," Obama told the workers, citing the Chrysler Corp.'s off-road SUV.
The audience shouted back "No!" and Obama added with a grin: "Wrangler can go over anything, huh?"
Though he didn't directly mention the poor jobs report, it was clearly on the president's mind as he praised the government bailout of the auto industry as necessary to help some workers keep their jobs and to aid businesses that depended on workers' spending money in their communities. He carefully noted that Chrysler had paid back its loans from his administration earlier than expected.
"I don't want to pretend like everything's solved. We've still got a long way to go, not just in this industry, but in our economy," Obama said, mentioning "all of our friends, all of our neighbors who are still feeling the sting of recession. There's nobody here who doesn't know somebody who is looking for work and hasn't found something yet.
"This economy took a big hit. You know, it's just like if you had a bad illness," Obama said of the recession. "If you got hit by a truck, it's going to take a while for you to mend. That's what's happened to the economy, it's taking a while to mend.
"There are still some headwinds coming at us," Obama said, citing rising gasoline prices, political instability in the Mideast and the economic disruption from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan as among the difficulties that have hurt the economic recovery.
The economy is expected to be the key battleground in the 2012 elections, and Republicans lost no time in citing the new jobs report as an indication of what they called the failure of the Obama administration.
"Today, three years into his term, we have more news that unemployment has ticked up again," Republican challenger Mitt Romney said at a town hall meeting at the University of New Hampshire. "We have 16 million people out of work or who just stopped looking for work, millions more are in jobs that are well beneath their capacities. We have home values continuing to decline three years later. Three years later, we have a record number of foreclosures; three years later, higher gasoline prices, higher food prices. People are feeling more squeezed."
Romney is considered one of the leaders for the GOP presidential nomination, according to most polls. But the rest of the Republican field also chimed in.
"Today's underwhelming job numbers report demonstrates President Obama's failure to address the tough challenges we face as a nation," stated Tim Pawlenty. "We need a leader to stand up and make the difficult choices essential to spur economic growth and create new jobs."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in a prepared statement said, "Once again weak job creation and an increase in unemployment to 9.1% is further evidence that the administration's policies are failing and the Obama recession could become much worse. America cannot wait, we must take immediate steps to put America back on the path of economic growth and job creation."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is considering whether to enter the GOP sweepstakes for the presidential nomination, argued that he had created jobs in his state. "As governor of Utah -- while our country faded into recession -- we created an environment that brought jobs to the state without resorting to out-of-control spending and debt," Huntsman said in a statement.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report from New Hampshire.