President Obama, launching his most direct campaign attack yet at a Republican foe, on Tuesday mocked Mitt Romney’s stance on the automobile industry, telling autoworkers that the former Massachusetts governor’s recent statements are an effort to “rewrite history” and “a load of you-know-what.” The stinging assault on Romney came in remarks to the United Auto Workers convention in Washington on the day of the Michigan primary, after a campaign in which Romney has tried to wriggle out of his controversial opposition to efforts by two presidents to rescue the auto industry in 2008 and 2009.

The speech marks a new phase of the campaign for the president, who has largely ignored the Republicans fighting to oppose him in November. He made no direct mention of Romney’s name. But there was no doubt of his target as he twice quoted from the Republican candidate’s op-ed, published in The New York Times on Nov. 18, 2008 under the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

Obama challenged “the naysayers” to admit they were wrong to oppose the rescue efforts, to “finally come around and say that standing by American workers was the right thing to do.” After quoting again from Romney’s article, Obama added, “I’ve got to admit, it’s been funny to watch some of these folks completely try to rewrite history now that you’re back on your feet. The same folks who said if we went forward with our plan to rescue Detroit, ‘you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.’ Now they’re saying we were right all along. Or... worse, they’re saying that the problem is that you, the workers, made out like bandits in all of this; that saving the American auto industry was just about paying back unions.”

Incredulously, the president asked: “Really?” He added, “I mean, even by the standards of this town, that’s a load of you-know-what. About 700,000 retirees saw a reduction in the health care benefits they had earned. Many of you saw hours reduced, or pay and wages scaled back. You gave up some of your rights as workers. Promises were made to you over the years that you gave up for the sake and survival of this industry, its workers, and their families.”

The president criticized Republicans for “still talking about you as if you’re some greedy special interest that needs to be beaten,” asking, “Since when are hardworking men and women special interests?” Striking the populist tone of his earlier speeches in Kansas and this year's State of the Union, he said, “This notion that we should have let the auto industry die, that we should pursue antiworker policies in hopes unions like yours will unravel – it’s part of that same old you’re-on-your-own philosophy that says we should just leave everyone to fend for themselves.”

Obama spent the beginning of his remarks reminding the autoworkers of how dire their situation was when he took office, again noting that he stood with them when others, including Romney, abandoned them. “America faced a hard and once unimaginable reality: that two of the Big Three automakers – GM and Chrysler – were on the brink of liquidation,” he said, before pointedly noting that Romney’s prescription would not have worked. “With the economy in complete free fall,” he said, “there were no private companies or investors willing to take a chance on the auto industry. Nobody was lining up to give you guys loans. Anyone in the financial sector could tell you that.” He added, “The other option we had was to do absolutely nothing, and let these companies fail. And you will recall, there were some politicians who said we should. Some even said we should ‘let Detroit go bankrupt’.” Boos rose from the audience at that.

Obama said that if he had followed that advice – from Romney – General Motors and Chrysler “wouldn’t exist today. The suppliers and distributors that get their business from those companies would have died off, too. Then even Ford could have gone down as well. Production: shut down. Factories: shuttered. Once-proud companies chopped up and sold off for scraps. And all of you – the men and women who built these companies with your own hands – would’ve been hung out to dry.”

Obama said that would have left more than a million Americans out of work in the industry and devastated communities that depend on the industry. “So,” Obama said, “no, we were not going to take a knee and do nothing. We were not going to give up on your jobs, your families, and your communities.” He said the rescue plan demanded something from everyone. “We said the auto industry would have to truly change, not just pretend that you’re changing.... We got labor and management to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. And everybody involved made sacrifices. Everyone had some skin in the game. It wasn’t popular, and it wasn’t what I ran for President to do.... But I did run to do the tough things – the right things – no matter what the politics are.”

The result today, Obama proclaimed, is that “the American auto industry is back.”