With Barra watching alongside first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address, the president praised her as he spelled out a plan for reinvigorating America's manufacturing sector.
In other automotive aspects in the speech, Obama pushed Congress to green-light natural gas fueling stations for vehicles — a priority GM has supported — and he signaled plans to boost fuel economy requirements for heavy trucks.
Obama singled out Barra, who took control of GM two weeks ago, as cameras trained on her.
"Our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams," Obama said. "It's how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America's largest automaker."
The president also told the growth story of Detroit Manufacturing Systems, a Ford parts supplier that has grown rapidly after Rush established the company. The manufacturer has added more than 600 employees in Detroit in the last year and a half.
"Two years ago, as the auto industry came roaring back, (founder) Andra Rush opened up a manufacturing firm in Detroit. She knew that Ford needed parts for the best-selling truck in America, and she knew how to make them. She just needed the workforce," Obama said. "So she dialed up what we call an American Job Center — places where folks can walk in to get the help or training they need to find a new job, or better job. She was flooded with new workers."