An Insider in an Unfamiliar Role

By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

A couple of months ago, Steven Rattner knew little about the U.S. auto industry.

But that didn't prevent President Obama from recruiting him to solve one of the most vexing problems of the financial crisis -- how to avert a catastrophic collapse of Chrysler and General Motors.

Rattner's supporters argue that his diverse experiences -- wealthy investment banker, prominent Democratic fundraiser, former New York Times foreign correspondent and fixture in upper-class Manhattan society -- make him an ideal candidate to undertake such a daunting challenge.

"Nobody's a magic worker," said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who entrusted the management of his multibillion-dollar fortune to Rattner. But "his background is really designed for tackling these kinds of problems. This is a phenomenally competent guy. People respect him."

Rattner, 56, has built a long, lucrative career on his chameleon-like talent to adapt to the situation at hand, to understand complex problems quickly and to display keen, level-headed judgment. His latest assignment, as head of the Treasury Department's auto task force, will test those skills more than ever.

"What I bring to this is the advantage of no preconceived notions. I don't come with an embedded view," Rattner said in an interview, calling the job "the most complex challenge I've ever had to deal with."

In coming weeks, the decisions Rattner and his team make will shape the fate of hundreds of thousands of factory workers, as well as parts suppliers and others who make up the American auto industry.

"It's a tough balancing act," he said. "We have lot of people's lives at stake, a lot of companies at stake, a lot of interests to consider."

The group's biggest challenge is deciding whether a comprehensive overhaul of GM and Chrysler is feasible or whether automakers are better off filing for bankruptcy. That decision faces a March 31 deadline, though the date might change.

Those who know Rattner well insist he is equal to the task.

"When he's on something, he's determined and he's willful," said media giant Barry Diller, who has worked with Rattner on numerous deals. "And that's usually the difference between people who get things done and people who just don't."

In another lifetime, Rattner was an activist Democrat at Brown University, a shaggy-haired economics major whose stories for the school newspaper were a thorn in the side of administrators.

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