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 1,700 UAW members.
In highlighting the 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.
Still, the White House took umbrage at suggestions that the speech was political, insisting it was a policy address about the state of the auto industry.
"These are substantive policy issues that affected hundreds of thousands, even millions of Americans," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "And they're very worth speaking about, as president."
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 that 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.
"But they're still talking about you as if you're some special interest that needs to be beaten down," Obama said.
Romney's campaign hit back, arguing that Obama was attacking Romney because he fears him most among the Republican candidates. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul blamed Obama for lost jobs, lost homes, and lost businesses in Michigan.
"No other candidate cares for Michigan or the automotive industry like Mitt Romney does, and he is heartbroken to see what has happened to his native state," Saul said.
The Republican Party also weighed in, doubling down on the assertion that in authorizing the bailout Obama was simply doing the bidding of labor. "This is an insider deal for his union cronies who got billions in bailout money and are now backing Obama's reelection campaign," said Kirsten Kukowski of the Republican National Committee.