Washington Sketch: Obama as Car Salesman in Chief

Meet your sales team: Ray LaHood, Tim Geithner, Barack Obama, Ed Montgomery and Gary Locke.
Meet your sales team: Ray LaHood, Tim Geithner, Barack Obama, Ed Montgomery and Gary Locke. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The White House was aiming high with yesterday's announcement that President Obama was pretty much becoming CEO of the American automotive industry.

Minutes before the president's arrival in the Grand Foyer of the White House, a technician in the back of the room tested the teleprompter for Obama's speech. "Fourscore and seven years ago," announced one of the screens in big letters, "our fathers brought on this continent a new nation . . ." In the actual event, Obama opted for a more modest text -- less Lincoln at Gettysburg than Krystal Koons cutting an ad for the family car dealerships.

"If you buy a car from Chrysler or General Motors, you will be able to get your car serviced and repaired, just like always," the president promised yesterday morning from the executive mansion.

And that's not all, folks! "Your warranty will be safe," the salesman in chief went on. "In fact, it will be safer than it's ever been, because starting today, the United States government will stand behind your warranty."

Incentives? Obama's got 'em. "If you buy a car anytime this year, you may be able to deduct the cost of any sales and excise taxes," the president offered. And nobody beats Obama on trade-ins; he wants a "generous credit to consumers who turn in old, less-fuel-efficient cars."

Perhaps the president can interest you in a Chevy Malibu? "In 2008, the North American Car of the Year was a GM," he pitched. And the Buick Lucerne is a real cream puff. "This year, Buick tied for first place as the most reliable car in the world," he declared from behind the presidential seal.

If you buy now, he may even throw in the floor mats.

Playing car salesman is an unusual role for a president of the United States -- but, then again, Obama has taken the presidency to many unusual places in his 70 days on the job. Republicans are howling about a "power grab" and "dictatorial" powers that, they say, would allow the Treasury secretary to take over private businesses at will. Even congressional Democrats are balking at Obama's broad plans to expand the government's role in energy and health care and increase its ownership of the banking industry.

Now Obama is taking a turn behind the wheel of the automotive trade. In exchange for more bailout funds, Obama ordered the ouster of GM chief executive Rick Wagoner and the merger of Chrysler with Europe's Fiat. And, in the federal government's first foray into the muffler-and-brake-pad business, the White House announced a "Warranty Commitment Program" under which the federal government would "stand behind new cars purchased from GM or Chrysler."

When Obama, preceded by a sales team of a dozen economic aides, entered the Grand Foyer yesterday morning, he offered assurances that "we have no intention of running GM." But, in the rest of his 18-minute speech, he sounded as if he was doing just that. He ordered up "a better business plan" from GM and asserted that "Chrysler needs a partner to remain viable." In both cases, the restructuring "may mean using our bankruptcy code."

The idea of bankruptcy may be "unsettling," Obama allowed -- so he came equipped with a sales pitch worthy of Madison Avenue. "Some of the cars made by American workers right now are outperforming the best cars made abroad," Obama declared, tossing in phrases such as "unsurpassed around the world" and "some of the finest cars the world has ever known."

No credit? No problem. "We are working intensively with the auto finance companies to increase the flow of credit to both consumers and dealers," Obama pledged.

The president had promised car buyers everything but rich Corinthian leather seats -- and reporters leaving the Grand Foyer got in the spirit of the day. "Zero money down!" proposed one. "Will he throw in a few oil changes?" wondered another.

NBC's Chuck Todd, during White House press secretary Robert Gibbs's afternoon briefing, observed that "the president stood up there almost like an advertisement."

Gibbs responded by supplementing the president's pitch. "No person that goes out today to buy a Jeep -- which I love to drive, I used to have a Jeep -- if somebody wants to go buy a Jeep, they should not hesitate to do so, because that warranty will be insured. . . . If somebody wants to go buy, as the president said, the Motor Trend Car of the Year, they can go do that."

As the briefing went on, Gibbs tried to close the deal. "You know, Chevy Malibu was the 2008 Motor Trend Car of the Year or North American Car of the Year," he repeated. "I think it bears mentioning that, in the recent dependability study that was put out, you know, Buick was tied for first."

Too late, the president's press secretary tried to soften the sales pitch. "I don't want to turn this into an advertisement," he said.

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