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Hard Line on Auto Aid Puts Bailed-Out Firms on Notice

Republicans were angered by the removal of GM's Richard Wagoner.
Republicans were angered by the removal of GM's Richard Wagoner. (Linda Davidson - The Washington Post)
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Bert Ely, a banking industry analyst in Alexandria, said the administration will likely exercise its powers in only a limited number of a cases, if at all. Even banks that have received repeated injections of government funds, analysts said, appear to be making some progress, and more importantly, are showing more willingness to respond to new economic realities than the automakers were.

"There is a key difference between GM and Chrysler and the large banks going forward," Ely said. "Those two companies have major questions about their [future] profitability. Whereas the large banks by and large have good business models going forward. The problem is that they've got to pay for the sins of the past."

Two banking executives who may be vulnerable, Ely and others said, are Citigroup's Vikram Pandit and Bank of America's Ken Lewis. Pandit, who took the helm 15 months ago and largely inherited the bank's problems, has stirred questions about whether he is moving fast enough to sell off assets that no longer fit Citigroup's business plan. Lewis has been criticized for his decision to acquire Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch.

Citigroup, which recently said it operated at a profit during the first two months of the year, declined to comment. A Bank of America spokesman dismissed talk that its chief executive was vulnerable.

"Bank of America made a $4 billion profit in 2008 and has been profitable in every quarter but one since 1991," said spokesman Scott Silvestri. "We do not see the parallel with the U.S. auto industry."

At a news briefing Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs faced repeated questioning about whether the Wagoner ouster meant the administration could remove any chief executive of a firm receiving federal funds if the government was not happy with his or her performance.

"I think it's imperative or important to ensure that we look at these things all individually," Gibbs said. He added that it was necessary to protect taxpayer money and use it wisely to spur recovery.

The administration also faced continued questioning about the perceived disparate treatment of Wall Street and Detroit, and fielded attacks from Republicans about Wagoner's removal.

"This is a marked departure from the past, truly breathtaking, and should send a chill through all Americans who believe in free enterprise," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who sits on the Senate Banking Committee, said in a statement. "Firing Rick Wagoner is a sideshow to distract us from the fact that the administration has no progress to announce today."

However, some political strategists said the administration's efforts are likely to be well-received by the public.

Democratic pollster Michael Bocian said frustration with the auto bailout was growing and that the public was blaming management. The public also places blame on banking executives but to a lesser degree, he said. The average American voter, he said, is not so concerned about government overreach as it is about accountability.

Wagoner's removal "is the kind of thing that sends a signal that, if they're going to get additional funding, they're going to have to make serious changes," Bocian said.

Rogan Kersh, associate dean and professor of public service at New York University, said replacing Wagoner is not without precedent. In the 1950s, he said, President Harry Truman seized steel mills to prevent a strike, an act later overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. In wartime and periods of economic unrest, "presidents or prime ministers of every advanced democratic country have taken actions affecting their business sector . . . that would arouse powerful criticism in ordinary times," he said in an e-mail. "This is hardly unprecedented."

Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

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