U.S. President Barack Obama says General Motors and Chrysler would have gone out of business had he not decided to help save the then struggling auto industry seven years ago.

Obama travelled to Detroit on Wednesday to tour the North American International Auto Show and celebrate the resurgence in the industry and the city.

In remarks after his tour, Obama noted the widespread opposition to his decision to bail out the automakers, and that Americans purchased nearly 17.5 million vehicles last year, a record high.

Without naming names, Obama scorned Republicans for opposing the bailout and trying to outdo each other by "peddling fiction" about the state of the U.S. economy.

"When one says our economy is terrible, the next says it's terrible, and on fire, and covered in bees!" he told a crowd at a United Auto Workers union centre for General Motors workers.

"These are the same folks who would have let this industry go under," he added.

The U.S. treasury invested about $80 billion in the auto industry during the last recession. After counting loan repayments, dividends and stock sales, the federal government recovered $70.5 billion.

Obama can't take all of the credit for the government's help. President George W. Bush initiated the auto bailout with more than $17 billion in short-term loans.

The Obama administration also provided additional capital to help Chrysler and GM continue operating as they restructured operations prior to and during a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding. The companies closed plants, laid off workers and cut ties with thousands of dealerships.

Americans against bailouts

Most Americans opposed providing a second round of government aid. A Gallup poll from February 2009 suggested that about 58 per cent opposed giving aid to automakers in danger of going bankrupt. Only about 41 per cent supported the aid.

Even three years later as Americans looked back, a slight majority said they disapproved of the bailout, with Republicans opposing it by a three-to-one margin, Gallup said.

Under ordinary circumstances, Bush said he wouldn't have favoured intervening to prevent automakers from going out of business, but in the midst of a financial crisis and recession, allowing the industry to collapse would send the country into a deeper and longer recession.

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Obama checks out some of the products at the auto show in Detroit. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

Flint's water crisis

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he didn't expect the president to make a detour in Flint, but the White House noted Obama did meet with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver when she visited Washington Tuesday to discuss the public health crisis over drinking water.

"I told her we are going to have her back and all the people of Flint's back as they work their way through this terrible tragedy," Obama said at the auto show."It is a reminder that we can't shortchange the basic services we provide to our people."

The president signed a federal emergency declaration over the weekend that allows up to $5 million in assistance and requires a 25 per cent match in funding from the state. The White House also said it had appointed a Health and Human Services official to co-ordinate federal help provided to local responders and the state.

The crisis began in 2014 when a state-appointed emergency manager switched Flint from Detroit water to Flint River water to save money. The corrosive water caused lead to leach from old pipes. Flint returned to the Detroit system in October after elevated lead levels were discovered in children.

Obama said if he were a parent in Flint, "I would be beside myself that my kid's health could be at risk."

2017 Lincoln Continental at Detroit auto show in January 2016

Journalists look over the 2017 Lincoln Continental after its unveiling at the show. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)