WASHINGTON (Detroit Free Press) -- New General Motors CEO Mary Barra plans to attend President Barack Obama's State of the Union address as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama - a month after the company shed its government ownership and two weeks after Barra became the first female CEO of a major automaker.
Barra's attendance marks a reversal of GM's strategy of avoiding the political spotlight while the automaker was still fending off the derisive "Government Motors" moniker in recent years.
In summer 2012, fed up with being used as a political football during the presidential campaign, GM banned President Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney from its factories during the election season.
While it's not clear whether Obama will mention Barra or GM during the speech, the president has consistently trumpeted the government's $49.5-billion bailout of GM as a success.
Barra - who gave Vice President Joe Biden a tour of GM's exhibit at the Detroit auto show earlier this month - will sit in Michelle Obama's box in the U.S. House balcony along with Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the vice president and at least 15 other invited guests.
Another local business executive, Andra Rush, founder and chair of the Rush Group, also is attending the speech in Michelle Obama's box. Rush is owner of Detroit Manufacturing Systems, an auto supplier that is adding hundreds of jobs in Detroit.
"The guests who have been invited to sit with the first lady represent the stories of millions of Americans across the country, who are working hard to better their communities, improve their own economic outcomes and help restore opportunity for all," the White House said in a statement.
Barra also is expected to meet with members of Congress on Wednesday for the first time since succeeding Dan Akerson as CEO. Akerson stepped down Jan. 15 to help his wife fight cancer, but will remain as an adviser for up to a year. She will meet with Republicans and Democrats, including members of the Michigan delegation.
She told reporters last week that she believes the strong majority of Americans have a positive opinion of GM after the company reinvested $10 billion in the U.S. since 2009. But she acknowledged that some people will never change their minds.
"I was honored to accept the first lady's invitation, and delighted to represent the men and women of GM who are doing their best to make GM a company that Americans can be proud of again," Barra said in a statement. "America's resurgent auto industry is a great comeback story and its contribution to our nation's economy should be a source of bipartisan pride. GM is doing its part to help lead a stronger auto industry that is creating new jobs and technologies."
The trip represents a new round of publicity for Barra, whose rise has generated publicity outside of automotive circles. She has downplayed her status as the first female CEO of a major automaker, telling reporters last week that "my gender doesn't really factor into my thinking when I come into the room."
But she has emphasized science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education as a "personal passion" - an issue the president also has stressed.
"I think we need to generate interest in the STEM fields," Barra said last week.
Barra's trip to Washington is the latest stop in her first road trip since relinquishing her job as GM's global product chief to become CEO. She visited GM's European headquarters on Monday to emphasize her commitment to the company's Germany-based Opel brand, which hasn't turned a profit since the last century.
GM has reported 15 consecutive profitable quarters, recently recaptured its investment-grade credit rating and returned to the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.
She told reporters last week that she plans to "accelerate" GM's current path without making significant "right turns or left turns."
Her trip gives the White House another opportunity to boast about the GM bailout. The government lost about $10.5 billion on the bailout, but President Obama has maintained that it helped millions of jobs.
But in a statement about the State of the Union, GM was careful to emphasize that the bailout drew bipartisan support, with the first dose of emergency coming from President George W. Bush in late 2008.
"We will always be grateful for the action taken by two administrations, the taxpayers' support, and the congressional members who stood with us during the industry's recovery," Barra said.
By Nathan Bomey and Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press staff writers