Jim Kuhnhenn

WASHINGTON: In a politically sizzling attack, President Barack Obama on Tuesday accused his Republican presidential challengers of abandoning the American worker and took credit for the auto industry’s resurgence while singling out GOP opposition to the taxpayer-backed rescue of General Motors and Chrysler that he helped engineer.

Speaking to a raucous United Auto Workers audience, Obama said that assertions by Republican presidential candidates that union members profited from the taxpayer-paid rescue are a “load of you-know-what.”

Even though Obama did not mention his critics by party or by name, the speech’s delivery and content had all the makings of a political stump speech.

Even the timing had political overtones, purposefully delivered just as voters in Michigan — a center of auto manufacturing — went to the polls to cast their ballots in the state’s Republican nominating contest.

Union President Bob King praised Obama as “the champion of all workers” who “saved our jobs and saved our industry,” an introduction that elicited chants of “Four more years!” from a crowd estimated at about 1,700 UAW members.

In highlighting the auto industry’s comeback, Obama drew a distinct contrast with Republican presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, both of whom have said they would not have used government money to save GM and Chrysler.

Obama’s speech came as auto sales are surging, on a pace to exceed 14 million this year. Automakers and parts companies added more than 38,000 jobs last year, with industry employment averaging 717,000 for 2011. And automakers have announced plans to add another 13,000 jobs this year.

As recently as Sunday, Romney said Obama favored the UAW in the bailout and that the president was “paying off the people that supported him.” Santorum has expressed a similar sentiment.

Obama left no doubt they were his targets.

“You’ve got folks saying, ‘Well, the real problem is, what we really disagreed with was the workers, they all made out like bandits; that saving the American auto industry was just about paying back unions,’” Obama said. “Really? Even by the standards of this town, that’s a load of you-know-what.”

He noted that under the agreement to use taxpayer money to save GM and Chrysler, union members had to agree to reduced wages and that thousands of retirees saw reductions in their health-care benefits.