ORION TOWNSHIP, Michigan — President Barack Obama and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak are promoting a new trade deal by visiting an auto plant in Michigan, a state battered by Asian car imports, in a rare joint appearance outside of Washington by a U.S. president and a visiting head of state.
In choosing General Motors Co.'s Orion assembly plant for Friday's tour, the two leaders will draw attention to an aspect of a U.S.-South Korea trade agreement that had been among the most difficult to negotiate. Congress approved the deal Wednesday after negotiators overcame U.S. auto industry complaints that previous efforts at a deal failed to do enough to lift South Korea's barriers to U.S.-made cars.
Obama is taking Lee to the heart of the region that has been hardest hit by foreign car competition, especially the influx of vehicles like South Korea's Hyundai.
For Obama, the trip is also an opportunity to highlight the U.S. auto industry's resurgence after he engineered an $80 billion government bailout for GM and Chrysler in 2009. The Orion plant had been closed before the federal government stepped in and helped guide the two car makers through bankruptcy protection.
The plant now is producing the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic, the only subcompact sold in the U.S. that is assembled in the U.S. It is being built with South Korean parts. GM began building the Sonic last year following an agreement with the United Autoworkers that allowed the company to pay some workers lower wages that are more competitive with those in GM's foreign plants. The Sonic's predecessor, the Chevrolet Aveo, was built in South Korea.
Obama could profit from calling attention to policies aimed at benefitting Michigan, a state that has the third highest unemployment rate in the country at 11.2 percent and which represents an important battleground in his bid for re-election. Obama won the state by a 57-41 margin in 2008, but could face difficulties in the state, especially if his general election opponent is Republican Mitt Romney, whose father was Michigan governor.
The trip also serves as an opportunity to illustrate Obama's special relationship with the South Korean leader. Inviting Lee to the U.S. heartland is an unusual addition to the itinerary of a high-profile state visit. Lee's is the fifth state visit during Obama's presidency, but the first that has included travel beyond Washington D.C.
President George W. Bush was more predisposed to travel outside Washington with foreign leaders. In 2006, he invited Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, an unabashed Elvis Presley fan, to Graceland. In 2001, Bush took Mexican President Vicente Fox to Ohio, where the two addressed Hispanic voters the day after their state visit at the White House.
The South Korea free trade deal still must be approved by South Korea's National Assembly— a vote that Lee said he was confident would succeed.
The South Korea deal alone could expand U.S. exports by $11 billion and support 70,000 jobs, according to the White House.
The trade agreement comes as South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. are on track to set U.S. sales records this year. Both companies build car and light truck models in the United States, but also export vehicles to the U.S. market.
Last year, the Ford Motor Co. ran an aggressive ad campaign to improve the trade deal by pointing out that for every 52 cars South Korea exported to the U.S., the U.S. only exported one to South Korea. "We believe in free trade, and this isn't it," Ford said in ads that ran in newspapers across the country.
On Friday, Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally praised the trade deal, saying it would "open new opportunities for Ford to reach even more Korean customers."
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