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President of Everything

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President Obama signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus plan called the 'American Recovery and Reinvestment Act' Tuesday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, a setting intended to underscore the new law's role in creating clean-energy jobs.
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Tuesday, February 17, 2009; Page A13

This is a presidency on steroids. Barack Obama's executive actions alone would be enough for any new administration's first month: decreeing an end to torture and the Guantanamo prison, extending health insurance to more children, reversing Bush-era policies on family planning. That the White House also managed to push through Congress a spending bill of unprecedented size and scope -- designed both to provide an economic stimulus and reorder the nation's priorities -- is little short of astonishing.

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Now it's time for the administration to get to work. For his next act, Obama must set the parameters of a new presidential role that he did not seek but cannot avoid: managing the big chunks of the private-sector economy that are now more accurately described as semi-private at best.

This week, executives from General Motors and Chrysler are reporting on their progress in transforming themselves into lean, mean carmaking machines, capable of leading American industry into a new golden age. They will also explain that they need some more money, and fast, if they are not to crash and burn. GM, which got a $9.4 billion cash infusion from the government just two months ago, wants the remaining $4 billion that the Bush administration approved; Chrysler, which got $4 billion in December, urgently needs $3 billion more.

Maybe it's just baby boomer nostalgia for the car culture of my youth, but I think it's a good idea for the United States to have a domestic automobile industry. Is there a man or woman alive who believes these will be automakers' last requests for bailout money from Washington? GM, at least, has done a decent job of capturing market share overseas, so maybe that's a framework for the company to reinvent itself. Chrysler is so diminished that I wonder whether there's any alternative to getting what's left of the company ready for sale.

Obama has abandoned plans to appoint a "car czar" to oversee government aid to the auto companies, giving the job instead to a high-level task force. So far, the president has declined to look a central question in the eye: Can GM and Chrysler thrive under present management? If the Big Three are not to shrink to the Big One -- Ford is managing to survive on its own -- Obama and Congress are going to have to oversee GM and Chrysler almost like a board of directors. Go ahead and laugh, but explain to me how even Washington could do a worse job with these two companies than Detroit is doing.

The auto industry problem is cheap and simple compared with what Obama faces in the financial sector. Thanks to an amendment that Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) inserted into the stimulus bill, Washington now has control over bonuses and severance packages at financial companies that have taken funds from the Bush administration's $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP): No more eight-figure bonuses for Wall Street "geniuses" whose cleverness helped drive their companies, and a good deal of the economy, into the ground.

Dodd added a measure that makes it easier for firms that chafe at Washington-imposed restrictions -- on executive compensation, for example -- to pull out of TARP. The details are complicated, but what's important is that banks and other financial institutions that are relatively healthy may well begin to leave the program. The impression would be that the firms remaining in the program are relatively sick -- and people tend to be uncomfortable keeping their money in banks that can be described as relatively sick.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has fought against transparency in the bailout program that would let everyone see which banks have pneumonia and which merely have a cold. My belief is that the pneumonia-vs.-cold distinction was bound to become evident, with or without the Dodd amendment. In any event, if one of our big banks were seen to be in danger of failing -- becoming, in effect, a dead bank walking -- the Obama administration would have few choices other than to nationalize it.

Then there's the housing problem, which may be the most difficult of all. Foreclosures and plummeting home values are at the heart of the economic crisis. Either millions of Americans are going to lose their homes or millions of mortgage contracts are somehow going to be modified. That's not an attractive choice.

All Barack Obama wanted was to be president. He may have to become an auto executive, a banker, a mortgage broker and who knows what else before this crisis is done.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

The writer will be online to answer questions at 1 p.m. today. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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