Whatever the outcome of the clash between the Bush administration and the Democratic Congress over a bailout package for Detroit, know that President-elect Barack Obama placed himself at this table -- and promptly tossed some valuable chips into the pot.
He had an easy way out: the one-president-at-a-time line. He's just a senator until Jan. 20. He didn't have to turn his Oval Office session with President Bush into a lobbying powwow. And with just the two of them in the room, he certainly (as the Bush team reminded him with a high hard one tossed via Drudge) didn't have to turn private talks into a public spat.
With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Harry Reid pushing a measure to help automakers during the lame-duck session, they have a partner in ownership: Obama.
It's a quiet kind of power play by a president-elect who's seeking a delicate balance: Obama, insisting that the economy needs more help now, is showing action, not just talking about it.
If it works, Obama would notch a legislative victory even before he's president -- in a quick payoff for his union backers, and (just maybe) for a troubled industry and the economy as a whole.
But if it fails to pass, or if it passes and then fails to work, or even if it works but fails to impress, the president-elect owns an issue that helped get him here a bit earlier -- and more completely -- than he did before.
"Democratic leaders in Congress said Tuesday they will push legislation next week to use the $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund to bail out Detroit auto makers, and President-elect Barack Obama ordered his transition team to look at ways to aid the car industry even before his inauguration," The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman, Greg Hitt and John D. McKinnon report.
"For Mr. Obama, the crisis in Detroit is turning into an early test of his leadership. Organized labor, including the United Auto Workers, invested heavily in Mr. Obama's campaign," they continue. "It's a situation Mr. Obama's team had hoped to avoid, potentially giving the president-elect responsibility for an emergency before he has any real authority to deal with it. . . . For Mr. Obama, a public intervention on behalf of Detroit puts his political capital at stake on behalf of companies that have lost the confidence of investors and many consumers -- reflected in the reluctance of banks to lend to the companies and their continuing loss of market share."
"A senior Democratic official . . . said Ms. Pelosi had decided to challenge Mr. Bush to work with the Democrats or veto aid to the teetering auto companies -- and take the blame if one of them fails," David M. Herszenhorn and Carl Hulse write in The New York Times. "The White House has resisted calls by Congress to use the $700 billion to help the automakers, saying that money is better spent easing the credit crunch at the heart of the economic crisis."
Key detail: "Congressional aides said Democratic leaders were coordinating their activities with [Obama's] transition team," Herszenhorn and Hulse report.