To Fix Detroit, Obama Is Said to Drop Plan for ‘Car Czar’
By BILL VLASIC
February 15, 2009
DETROIT — President Obama has dropped the idea of appointing a single, powerful “car czar” to oversee the revamping of General Motors and Chrysler and will instead keep the politically delicate task in the hands of his most senior economic advisers, a top administration official said Sunday night.
Mr. Obama is designating the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, and the chairman of the National Economic Council, Lawrence H. Summers, to oversee a presidential panel on the auto industry. Mr. Geithner will also supervise the $17.4 billion in loan agreements already in place with G.M. and Chrysler, said the official, who insisted on anonymity.
The official also said that Ron Bloom, a restructuring expert who has advised the labor unions in the troubled steel and airline industries, would be named a senior adviser to Treasury on the auto crisis.
The unexpected shift comes as G.M. and Chrysler race to complete broad restructuring plans they must file with the Treasury by Tuesday. The companies’ plans are required to show progress in cutting long-term costs as a condition for keeping their loans.
The administration official said the president was reserving for himself any decision on the viability of G.M. and Chrysler, both of which came close to bankruptcy before receiving federal aid two months ago.
One of President Obama’s top advisers said Sunday that the administration had not ruled out a government-backed bankruptcy as a means to overhaul the automakers.
“We’re going to need a restructuring of these companies,” the adviser, David Axelrod, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. He added that a turnaround of the companies would “require sacrifice not just from the auto workers but also from creditors, from shareholders and the executives who run the company.”
The automakers had been expecting the appointment of a car czar to break the logjam of negotiations with the United Auto Workers over the finances of a retiree health care trust, and with bondholders about reducing the companies’ debt.
Mr. Bloom is known for bringing his Wall Street experience as an investment banker to an advisory role as the “in-house” banker for the steel workers’ union. With the auto union locking horns with bondholders in the G.M. revamping deliberations, Mr. Bloom appears to bring credibility with both the union and the debtors. Mr. Bloom could not be reached for comment Sunday night.
Another senior administration official said that Mr. Obama had considered appointing a car czar, and among those considered for the job was the private equity executive Steven Rattner. It was not clear why the administration changed course or whether Mr. Rattner would have a role on the task force.
The panel, called the Presidential Task Force on Autos, will draw officials from several agencies including the departments of Treasury, labor, transportation, commerce and energy, according to the administration official.
Many members of the task force have already been working closely with G.M. and Chrysler on the viability plans they are preparing for the government.
G.M. and Chrysler are both expected to request more loans to stay solvent during what is shaping up as another miserable year for auto sales.
Chrysler’s chairman, Robert L. Nardelli, has said his company needs another $3 billion in addition to the $4 billion loan it received in January.
G.M. originally asked for $18 billion in aid in December. G.M. has borrowed $9.4 billion so far and is scheduled to receive another $4 billion, if the Treasury is satisfied with its revamping plan.
G.M. said in a statement that it welcomed the new task force and that it looked forward to sharing its plan “to restore our company to viability and to meet the requirements of its loan agreements.”
Representatives of Chrysler could not be reached for comment on Sunday night.
The administration official who disclosed the change in Mr. Obama’s plans for oversight of the auto industry said the group would review the companies’ submissions for a week or two before responding publicly. Until then, the auto makers are expected to continue talks with the union and other stakeholders.
On Sunday afternoon, G.M. and the U.A.W. resumed discussions in Detroit about reducing the company’s labor costs, a person with direct knowledge of the talks said. This person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private, characterized the talks Sunday evening as “intense” but did not indicate that an agreement was imminent.
The U.A.W. had walked away from the bargaining table late Friday as the two sides clashed over how to cover retiree health care costs.
U.A.W. leaders in December agreed to help the automakers by delaying when the companies are required to make multibillion-dollar payments into a new trust fund designed to pay for retiree health coverage.
The Ford Motor Company is not taking federal aid, and therefore does not need to submit plans for approval. But Ford, which lost $14.6 billion in 2008, the most in its history, is expected to ask the U.A.W. for whatever concessions are granted to G.M. and Chrysler.
Both G.M. and Chrysler are likely to outline deep cuts in jobs, plants and models in their restructuring plans. One G.M. executive said the automaker is proposing a much smaller company with fewer brands and far fewer people.
G.M. and Chrysler recently extended buyout and early retirement offers to nearly all of their 90,600 hourly workers as they try to eliminate factory jobs and replace older workers making about $28 an hour with new hires who can be paid half as much.
G.M. announced plans last week to cut 10,000 white-collar jobs worldwide, including 3,400 in the United States. It said that salaries for those who remain on staff would be cut by as much as 10 percent through at least the end of 2009.
Over all, automakers are expected to sell between 10 million and 11 million vehicles in the United States this year, far below the 16.2 million they sold in 2007. G.M. said last week that the two-year drop is roughly equal to the capacity of 24 assembly plants.
Jackie Calmes contributed reporting from Washington, and Nick Bunkley from Detroit.
A version of this article appeared in print on February 16, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.