Getting under the hood
Friday, September 3, 2010
In one of the first detailed insider accounts by a member of President Obama's team, a chief architect of the federal bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler has penned a 300-plus page description of the policy improvisation performed by the administration as the economy swooned at the outset of the president's term.
Steve Rattner, the Wall Street financier and Democratic Party stalwart drafted to lead the automakers' rescue, had a front-row seat in some of the most important disputes within the administration, including those over government intervention in private business, the politics of bailouts and who is allowed to speak at meetings.
The narrative of "Overhaul" offers a generally charitable view of the protagonists, though in the hurly-burly of White House jostling there are unflattering episodes, and these undoubtedly will draw the most attention.
Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, when reminded that tens of thousands of jobs are at stake, utters a common profanity expressing disdain for the United Auto Workers.
White House senior adviser Larry Summers is brilliant but imperious toward a dissenting economist, Austan Goolsbee, who dares to speak up at a meeting. Summers "explodes" and tells Goolsbee in the corridor: "You do not relitigate in front of the president!"
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), dejected about the possibility the automakers would have to file for bankruptcy, tells Obama in a voice barely above a whisper: "I hope you know what you're doing."
The best Obama line may be this one, as General Motors and Chrysler approached financial meltdown in November 2008: "Why can't they make a Corolla?" he asked his advisers, according to the book.
"We wish we knew," his advisers reply.
Although the book offers a generally favorable view of the administration - and puts Obama on a par with "the best CEOs I had spent time with on Wall Street" - it has touched a nerve among some of Rattner's former colleagues. The assertion that Emanuel had spoken so cavalierly about autoworkers, a key node of Democratic support, was quickly rebuffed by the White House and the union president Thursday.
In an e-mail, UAW President Bob King called it "baloney."
"The hard work of this President, Rahm Emanuel and the Administration literally saved the auto industry," King said.
A senior White House official similarly cast doubt on the account.