Residents of Toledo, Ohio, especially Chrysler employees at the Jeep assembly plant, expressed gratitude today when President Obama came to celebrate the government's sale of its final stake in Chrysler.

The message of the day: Thank you. Employees put paper cups in a fence spelling out the words "Yes We Did" and "Toledo Chrysler Thanks You." One woman wore a red t-shirt that has "President Obama" printed on the front, and "Thank You" on the back. When President Obama saw it, he hugged her.

The President, vice president and other administration officials have become regular visitors to Ohio and Michigan in the past year, championing their decision to save the auto industry when it faced collapse in 2008 and 2009.

And you'll have to excuse Obama if he gloats a bit. The decision to help the auto industry--first by President Bush with infusions of cash and then by Obama by using Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds--was widely panned in 2008 and 2009 by Congressional Republicans who wanted to let free market nature take its course with General Motors, Chrysler and parts companies. Now, as the 2012 Presidential election is heating up, virtually all the GOP contenders--such as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty--are still deriding the Obama White House for choosing "winners and losers" with bailouts in 2009.

Heading off Collapse of the Auto Industry

"We could have done what a lot of folks in Washington thought we should do, and that is nothing," Obama said. "We could have just let U.S. automakers go into an uncontrolled freefall. And that would have triggered a cascade of damage all across the country."

That's something people in Michigan and Ohio understand probably better than most people in the U.S. They see how massive the auto industry is, and how it spans across the entire country. They see boxes of parts coming in from all over the country and the world, and they see the cars they make ending up at dealerships in Maine, California, and everywhere in between.

Michigan and Ohio are going to be key competitive swing states going into the 2012 presidential elections. Both have Republican governors leading Republican state houses who are quickly losing public support as they attempt to bust public employee unions -- something that's not sitting well with the United Auto Workers union. The UAW has traditionally been key to Democratic organizing even though many hourly workers are socially conservative.

What exactly did the government do? First, the Bush Administration greenlighted funds to keep GM and Chrysler afloat when their cash reserves were running down as auto sales cratered after the financial markets fell apart. Then, President Obama organized a White House task force to dig into GM and Chrysler's problems and force the companies to make major restructuring moves in exchange for the U.S. Treasury providing financing to get them back o their feet.

Two years later, GM and Chrysler are profitable. The two companies have paid back their loans. Chrysler has bought out the government's equity stake. Ford is also very profitable. Over 100,000 new jobs have been added by the industry since GM and Chrysler came out of bankruptcy in mid 2009. But the government still owns 26% of GM, though the U.S. Treasury is widely expected to sell down its stake starting in August or September.

Despite the success, some are criticizing the self-congratulatory back-slapping. This week, CNBC's Phil LeBeau wondered when the President and his administration will "stop taking victory laps."

Look for More Victory Laps

The answer is probably not any time soon, as there are still 18 months til the election. While job creation took a hit nationally in May, employment has been rising in Ohio and Michigan since the doldrums of 2008 and early 2009 because GM, Ford and Chrysler have been hiring, and that has also meant rising employment at the parts companies.

Injecting $80 billion into the industry saved at least one million jobs, which is the most conservative estimate. The White House said this week that the total cost after loans to General Motors are paid back, and the government sells its stake in GM, will be about $14 billion.

Despite the fact that Ford Motor Co. did not require a U.S. Treasury bailout to stay in business, Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Chairman Bill Ford both supported Obama's moves with its rivals and parts companies. Letting GM and Chrysler fall apart, it was argued, would cause so much instability int the web of auto parts suppliers that Ford could have been dragged down as well.

The bailout will likely win Obama votes in Ohio. It has already helped win over Ricky Allen, an operator at the Jeep plant in Toledo, who was laid off for six months and was facing foreclosure on his home before Chrysler hired him back.

"A lot of people in Washington wanted to sell off the industry," he said. "With all the jobs he saved, I think he's proven that it worked."

Chrysler's story - from near death to recovery - is part of a larger story about the American economy, Obama said.

Politics and Jobs

Even though unemployment is not yet back at a healthy level, coming in higher in May than April at 9.1%, the auto industry recovery is a sign that things are improving, Obama said.

"Even though the economy is growing, we still face some tough times," he said. "It's just like if you had a bad illness, if you got hit by a truck, it's going to take a while for you to mend. And that's what's happened to our economy. It's taking a while to mend."

Not everyone is comfortable with the celebration. Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne told CNBC last week: "I am sorry I am being brash but when you owe money to people and you pay them back you shouldn't be celebrating. You just cut them a check and send them home and say thank you on your way out."

But a lot of people just wanted to express their gratitude.

As he left after his speech in Toledo today, Obama shook hands with workers one by one in a small lobby area in the plant. The comments from the workers were all the same message expressed a little differently by each.

"Thank you for bailing out Chrysler."

"Thanks for saving my job."

"Thanks for helping me keep my job."

The bailout is certainly not something anyone wants to go through again, but now that it's nearly over, Obama will likely keep on celebrating, especially as it gets deeper into campaign season next year. Republicans won't be able to argue that the bailout didn't work, so they'll continue to criticize the bailout on ideological grounds.

Republicans Stand Firm Against Auto Bailout

Some will try to do both. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was vocal in his opposition to the government bailout of GM and Chrysler in 2008. Recently, he tried to claim that the companies followed his advice to restructure. But the candidate leaves out the fact that the companies could not have restructured in bankruptcy court without the government providing the financing to do so. Banks and investment firms normally provide that financing, but none were forthcoming in the financial chaos of late 2008 and early 2009.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, whose Congressional district is in Ohio, has nonetheless been against the White House's moves to buttress the auto industry. Boehner's district, though, is closest to Honda's giant Marysville, Ohio, plant, which is a non-union assembly complex.

"The administration's auto bailout is nothing to celebrate," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "The model the White House should be touting is Ford, which, instead of relying on a taxpayer-funded bailout, saw trouble coming and made the tough decisions necessary to preserve jobs and weather the storm."

"Unemployed workers in Ohio aren't looking for a presidential victory lap. They need jobs," Kevin DeWine, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said in a state address.

But a lot of people in Ohio and Michigan won't criticize. They'll just keep saying thank you. And maybe Obama will come back to say the same to Ohioans: "Thank you for helping me keep my job."