Big 3 Auto Heads Get Little From President

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

President Bush promised yesterday to deliver a message to Asian trading partners to "treat us the way we treat you" but offered top U.S. auto executives little help in their battle to turn their companies around.

The president met with the three chief executives of the Detroit-based auto companies for a little more than an hour at the White House after twice postponing the get-together in the past several months. In Michigan, where the economy is reeling from auto industry downsizing, the long wait came to symbolize the Bush administration's indifference to the manufacturing sector.

Alan R. Mulally of Ford Motor Co.; Thomas W. LaSorda of Chrysler, the U.S. division of DaimlerChrysler AG; and G. Richard Wagoner Jr. of General Motors Corp. laid out their concerns about fair trade, health-care costs, rising steel prices and alternative fuel development. After the meeting, Bush said the executives had "tough choices" to make. He said he was confident that they were making the "right decisions."

Bush, who was preparing to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam this week, said he would tell Asian trading partners that "our markets are open for your products, and we expect your markets to be open for ours, including our automobiles."

At a news conference after the meeting, the three auto executives said they found common ground with the president on energy issues. The executives said they asked the administration to help expand the supply and distribution of alternative fuels such as ethanol. In a joint statement, the automakers said they could make half of their annual vehicle production capable of burning ethanol by 2012 to lessen the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

The auto executives said Bush made no pledges to support any specific industry initiatives. Other company officials had said they had limited expectations for the meeting, which was also attended by Vice President Cheney.

The auto executives said they were not able persuade the administration to challenge the Japanese government on its trade imbalance with the United States and the weakness of the yen, which makes Japanese products cheaper overseas. Wagoner and other auto officials have accused the Japanese government of artificially weakening the yen, providing a cost subsidy of $3,000 to $9,000 per vehicle for auto exports to this country for automakers like Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.

"I can't honestly say the president 100 percent saw it that way," Wagoner said after the meeting.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, said part of the administration's inaction has been because Michigan is a Democratic-leaning state. She said organized labor played a major role in last week's elections and labor union members turned out in large numbers to help mobilize Democratic voters.

"But it's much bigger than that," Bronfenbrenner said. "Bush hasn't cared about health care, retiree benefits or pensions for any workers, and those are some of the issues that drove the Democratic victory in the last election."

The election put key allies of the industry into power, including Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who is set to lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), who is to take the chairmanship of the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. In a written statement, Dingell said he was pleased automakers had a chance to present their concerns to the president. "The meeting is a first step," he said, "now we need action."

Democrats are pushing a number of industry-related initiatives on trade and health care. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said he would continue to try to build support for a proposal to have the government pick up part of the auto industry's retiree health-care bills, if the carmakers promise to invest in new energy technologies such as hybrids.

"My hope is that the president and his staff are working to examine these approaches," Obama said yesterday in an interview. "I can assure you if the president doesn't take the lead, the Congress will."

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