Obama auto czar Rattner delivers a vigorous account of the bailout of the automobile industry—a success, though one fraught with controversy.
“For someone like myself who believes in public service,” writes the author, “an assignment like Team Auto can be a dream come true—the chance to make a meaningful difference on a huge issue that requires only minimal interaction with Congress.” The last part is key, for Rattner clearly has little use for many of the elected representatives with whom he had to deal, particularly those who lobbied him continually to keep auto jobs within their districts. (He knew better than to alienate them, though, listening politely while answering e-mail.) His glimpse of the inner workings of the auto bailout opens with a nod to the previous administration, during whose tenure the current economic mess began. Approached by the big automakers with a plea for a taste of the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) billions, Henry Paulson replied, “This is complete bullshit!” Yet the political implications of letting the automakers fail were so grave that he had to cave. The program expanded under Rattner’s direction to include not just dollars handed out but also structural reforms that, though difficult to effect, proved essential—allowing Chrysler, for instance, to emerge from bankruptcy with relative lightning speed. In that, the author gives credit to Obama administration economic guru Lawrence Summers, who was rightly leery of anything that resembled a takeover: “Any kind of government ownership was bad enough, but owning a majority interest was worse.” Rattner writes carefully and clearly about the politicking and back-of-envelope calculating that went into the hard decisions of the bailout: Who qualifies? Does an American firm most of whose jobs are in Mexico get a piece of the action? And perhaps most important, how do we get Congress to get its act together?
A fine inside-baseball account of how things can get done when people agree to get them done, even in Washington.