Former Journalist Heads Obama's Auto Task Force Steve Rattner was a star reporter who left journalism and became a billionaire on Wall Street. He has little automotive experience, which makes him an interesting choice to head the White House's auto industry task force.
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Former Journalist Heads Obama's Auto Task Force

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Former Journalist Heads Obama's Auto Task Force

Former Journalist Heads Obama's Auto Task Force

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Ari Shapiro. Steven Rattner has a knack for making money and connections. But Rattner, the man overseeing the government's auto industry bailout plan, has little automotive experience. He's supervising a plan that's offering billions in assistance, and is also making many demands on the automakers. The Obama administration has given General Motors and Chrysler just a few weeks to come up with survival plans if they want another dollop of government assistance. In a moment, we'll hear from Chrysler's president. But first, NPR's Scott Horsley has this profile of Rattner and the challenges he faces.

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

Unidentified Man: (Reading) Official Washington has begun informally debating the Chrysler Corporation's request for up to a billion dollars in federal aid.

HORSLEY: Thirty years later, Rattner is running President Obama's auto industry task force, and he's helping the administration to answer the question he first posed in the late 1970s.

Unidentified Man: Whether it is obligatory or even desirable for the federal government to come to the rescue of a large ailing corporation.

HORSLEY: Rattner had joined The New York Times fresh out 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 without answering to a non-car guy. But industry expert Susan Helper of Case Western Reserve says Rattner and his colleagues are quick studies.

Ms. SUSAN HELPER (Industry Expert, Case Western Reserve): These are very, very smart people, and they learn very fast.

HORSLEY: At the same time, 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.

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

HORSLEY: 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 for a lavish apartment on Fifth Avenue and his own airplane. He also gave away a lot of money to Democratic politicians. His wife, Maureen White, is the former national finance chair for the Democratic National Committee.

The couple raised more than a hundred thousand dollars 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 last month that fixing GM and Chrysler would take sacrifices all around.

Mr. STEVEN RATTNER (Head of Auto Industry Task Force): We are certainly going to ask for all stakeholders, including the UAW, to make concessions as part of this process.

HORSLEY: That includes tough medicine for management. Rattner personally gave GM boss Rick Waggoner 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. Rattner told Bloomberg that tight timelines like that have a way of bringing people to the table.

Mr. RATTNER: I think inevitably, as part of this process, there going to be deadlines. I've been working on deals for 26 years, and without deadlines, deals don't happen.

HORSLEY: 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.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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