By Alister Bull
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday hailed the recovery of the U.S. auto industry, turning White House attention back to the domestic priority of job creation after a week devoted to foreign policy.
Easing unemployment from painful levels of 9 percent may be vital to President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election bid and the administration is seeking to bolster his standing with blue collar workers as it takes credit for the auto bailout.
"Because of what we did, the auto industry is rising again. Manufacturing is coming back. And our economy is recovering and it's gaining traction," Biden said in the weekly White House radio and Internet address.
Chrysler Group LLC on Tuesday paid back $7.6 billion in U.S. and Canadian government loans from its 2009 bailout. The move allowed Chrysler to deepen its ties with Italian automaker Fiat SpA.
Chrysler's move allowed Obama, a Democrat, to pause during a busy European trip to remind Americans that he pushed through the auto rescue despite opposition from Republicans who condemned it as excessive government intervention.
"This announcement came six years ahead of schedule -- and just two years after Chrysler Corp emerged from bankruptcy. You know, and it's a sign of what's happening throughout the American automobile industry," Biden said.
"It's not just Chrysler. Also this week, GM announced that its Detroit-Hamtramck factory will run three shifts for the first time its 26-year history. You know, that's 2,500 more good, paying jobs," Biden said.
General Motors Co filed for bankruptcy in 2009 but soon emerged from bankruptcy thanks to a $52 billion U.S. taxpayer-funded bailout. GM's profits are now beating expectations on the back of strong demand for more fuel-efficient cars like its Chevrolet Cruze.
Ford Motor Co did not take a U.S. government bailout to help restructure in 2009, unlike rivals GM and Chrysler, but did receive direct and indirect financial assistance through loans, capital, tax credits and other programs that have aided its strong turnaround.
Obama returns to Washington later on Saturday from a six-day visit to Ireland, Britain, France and Poland, and after spending part of the previous week focused on the Middle East.
On Sunday, Obama is due to fly to Missouri to witness the destruction caused in the city of Joplin by a powerful tornado that killed more than 130 people.
Obama's public approval ratings have risen since U.S. forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2.
But Obama's stewardship of the economy gets lower marks, as persistent unemployment and high gasoline prices dent the wallets and dim the confidence of voters.
Michigan, epicenter of the U.S. auto industry, went heavily for Obama in 2008 over his Republican challenger John McCain, and the White House wants to make sure that it stays in his column next year.
"Even for a lot of people with jobs, their wages aren't keeping pace with prices of everything from gas to groceries," Biden said. "We're focused on making sure that if you work hard, play by the rules, you'll be able to get ahead."
(Editing by Will Dunham)