Ohio - U.S. President Barack Obama promised struggling autoworkers on Tuesday he was committed to rebuilding a thriving U.S. auto industry and said the world's largest economy was on the mend.

It's going to take some time to achieve a complete recovery, Obama said during a visit to General Motors Co's sprawling Lordstown plant in Ohio.

But Obama, who took office on January 20 after eight years of the Bush administration, said his policies had stopped a freefall in the economy and helped us turn the corner.

The fate of the Lordstown plant has been up in the air for much of the past decade but lately has become the centerpiece of GM's effort to build more fuel-efficient vehicles and change its association with gas-guzzlers.

We're going to rebuild, Obama said in a campaign-style speech to the unionized workers who are an important part of his political base.

Also on Tuesday, he was addressing a convention of the AFL-CIO labor federation in Pittsburgh, another part of the U.S. industrial heartland that was being hit hard even before the global economic crisis erupted last year.

GM has benefited from massive assistance under the Obama administration and is now 61 percent owned by the U.S. Treasury after the government extended $50 billion in emergency funding aimed at allowing it to restructure.

The president coming here is really something special for the Lordstown complex that I believe we needed, said employee Michael Lisbon, who wore a Navy blue T-shirt with a GM logo. Our future's good. We're going to be OK.


Obama has sought in recent weeks to highlight emerging indications of economic improvement in the hopes of recovering his popularity, which has suffered amid a heated debate over his plans to reform the healthcare system.

In signs the U.S. economy is on the road out of recession, retail sales rose at the fastest pace in 3-1/2 years in August and a gauge of New York state manufacturing activity hit a nearly two-year high.

Retail sales show the recovery is here, said T.J. Marta, market strategist at Marta on the Markets in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. This wasn't just autos, it wasn't just gasoline. This was the U.S. consumer getting out of their foxhole.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Tuesday the U.S. economy was likely out of its worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s but cautioned that the recovery would be modest.

Even though from a technical perspective the recession is very likely over at this point, it's still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time, Bernanke said after giving a speech at a Brookings Institution conference.

Bernanke spoke on the one-year anniversary of the collapse of investment banking titan Lehman Brothers, which set off the global financial crisis.

Obama traveled on Monday to Wall Street to push his plan to overhaul U.S. financial regulations to prevent a repeat of the crisis triggered by Lehman's collapse and said the government was beginning to unwind its role in the financial sector.
But experts believe it will be years before the government can fully pull back from its $65 billion investments in GM and rival automaker Chrysler.

To the White House's frustration, the bailouts of the auto companies and financial firms have helped to fuel uneasiness over Obama's healthcare proposals as critics charge that the government already has too large a role in the economy.

Obama said managing auto companies wasn't something on my to-do list. It wasn't even something on my want-to-do list.

But Obama, who has sought to emphasize he inherited an economy already in deep recession from former President George W. Bush, said he had no choice but to try to save an industry whose collapse would have cause enormous harm to the economy.

In the feistier tone that has marked his recent speeches, Obama portrayed himself as a fighter and said he would not rest until anyone who is looking for a job can find one.

I've said it before: I'm skinny, but I'm tough.

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Washington and Kevin Krolicki in Detroit; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Eric Beech)