Former Journalist Heads Obama's Auto Task Force

In late summer of 1979, a story appeared in The New York Times under the byline of a young reporter named Steven Rattner.

"Official Washington has begun informally debating the Chrysler Corporation's request for up to $1 billion in federal aid," it said.

Thirty years later, Rattner is running President Obama's auto industry task force. And he's helping the administration answer the question his article posed in the late 1970s: "Whether it is obligatory or even desirable for the Federal government to come to the rescue of a large, ailing corporation?"

Rattner had joined The New York Times fresh out of Brown University, where he studied economics. He began as an assistant to the legendary Times editor James Reston, and he advanced quickly. But in the early 1980s, Rattner left journalism for the more lucrative world of investment banking. He worked at Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley and Lazard Freres before co-founding his own investment firm, Quadrangle Capital, nine years ago.

Rattner specialized in media companies. He managed the personal fortune of media mogul-turned-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But aside from covering the first Chrysler bailout 30 years ago, Rattner didn't know much about the auto business.

When he took over the task force, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger grumbled about answering to a non-car guy.

But industry experts say Rattner and his task force colleagues are quick studies. "These are very, very smart people. And they learn very fast," said Susan Helper, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Helper takes issue with Rattner's statement in a number of newspaper articles that setting policy for GM and Chrysler is essentially an "investment decision," much like those he made in his banking career.

"There are some ways in which it is an investment decision," Helper said. "No one wants to see these companies flounder for a long time. On the other hand, I think the public has different goals."

Helper suggests that in order to justify a public investment in the auto industry, there must be a public payoff, such as preserving high-wage jobs or building more fuel-efficient cars — things that don't necessarily enter into an investment banker's bottom line.

As a banker, Rattner made a lot of money — enough to pay for a lavish apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York and his own airplane. He also gave away a lot of money to Democratic politicians. His wife, Maureen White, is the former national finance chairwoman for the Democratic National Committee. The couple raised more than $100,000 for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, then shifted their support to Barack Obama once he sewed up the nomination.

Rattner declined NPR's request for an interview. But he told Bloomberg Television last month that fixing GM and Chrysler would require sacrifices all around.

"We are certainly going to ask for all stakeholders, including the UAW, to make concessions as part of this process," he said.

That includes tough medicine for management. Rattner personally gave GM boss Rick Wagoner his walking papers. And the government says creditors who lent money to the two companies aren't likely to get much of it back. The administration has warned that unless a deal can be struck voluntarily in the next month or two, bankruptcy may be the best option for the automakers.

"I think inevitably as part of this process, there are going to be deadlines. I've been working on deals for 26 years, and without deadlines, deals don't happen," Rattner told Bloomberg Television.

The clock is ticking for members of the auto task force as well — although Rattner reportedly has ambitions of staying on in the Obama administration.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.