The Note, 6/1/2009: Behind the Wheel — Obama drives off GM lot — without a warrantee

By Caitlin Taylor

Jun 1, 2009 8:18am

By RICK KLEIN Maybe an all-consuming Supreme Court fight wouldn’t be that bad after all. What’s filled the vacuum, as Judge Sonia Sotomayor hits the Hill this week, looks a lot like what President Obama doesn’t want to be talking about. He never signed up to be in the auto business. His election was about ending the culture wars. The old divisions were supposed to fade away. The economic mess? He inherited it. But with the final collapse of an industry titan into bankruptcy — the move the president and the company’s management have spent 2009 trying to avoid — now comes a risky effort that is entirely the property of President Obama. The bankruptcy filing serves a primary purpose aimed at saving General Motors. It serves a secondary purpose of ending the era where the president could plausibly blame his predecessor for various economic messes. This is a lot of balls in the air: the healthcare push starts in earnest, cap-and-trade needs to keep its momentum, the Sotomayor nomination needs to stay on track, and there’s a Middle East trip to break it all up — capped by perhaps the highest-profile speech the president has given since the Inauguration. Now the president has a car company — and an entire beleaguered industry — all his own. This purchase does not come with a warrantee. “Obama sets a new course for GM,” reads the Detroit Free Press headline. “President Barack Obama will announce on Monday the bankruptcy of General Motors Corp., launching a complicated, $59-billion effort to prevent the century-old juggernaut of American manufacturing from collapse,” Justin Hyde writes.  Obama is “making a risky bet that by temporarily nationalizing the onetime icon of American capitalism, he can save at least a diminished automaker that is competitive,” David Sanger, Jeff Zeleny and Bill Vlasic report in The New York Times. “It also places the government in uncharted territory as a business owner, as it takes a 60 percent ownership stake in the company during its restructuring. Reflecting the government’s extraordinary intervention in industry, aides say, Mr. Obama plans to tell the nation on Monday that he believes G.M. can be brought back from the brink of insolvency, even if the company looks almost nothing like the titan of old.”  The president announces the new General Motors at 11:55 am ET at the White House. Yes, the taxpayers own it, but who really owns this deal? “The Obama administration, for its part, has navigated the GM rescue so far with notable speed, clearing away many of the biggest obstacles in just months with less drama than many expected. In six to 18 months, GM could be a publicly traded company again,” Kevin Helliker, Neil King Jr., and John D. Stoll write in The Wall Street Journal.  “Underscoring the government's extraordinary role, President Barack Obama planned to announce his support for GM's restructuring strategy at a midday appearance at the White House, much as he did in April when Chrysler sought court protection,” the AP’s Jim Kuhnhenn and Ken Thomas report. “The day to day operations will be carried out by GM's management. But a majority of the board of directors will change and the administration will have a hand in helping select them.”  “We intend for this to be a permanent resolution of the GM situation and an ability for the company to go forward and be profitable,” a senior administration official said Sunday, per ABC’s Matthew Jaffe and Charlie Herman.  Hello, union politics: “As the administration builds the case for another massive infusion of government money into the automaker, it is also dealing separately with accusations that its plan unfairly favors the United Auto Workers at the expense of the company's investors,” Peter Whoriskey reports in The Washington Post. “The fairness issue will be central as the GM bankruptcy case goes before a judge this week: Does the government-sponsored restructuring plan equitably accommodate all of the company's stakeholders?”  Now he gets to run it, too: “Given the size of the $50 billion U.S. investment, it will be hard for President Barack Obama and Congress to say they will remain uninvolved in a company saved only by taxpayer largesse. Already the administration has said it wants to direct GM to make more fuel-efficient small cars, a potential threat to the company's near-term profitability. And members of Congress successfully pressured GM to roll back a decision to ship some jobs to China,”The Wall Street Journal’s Neil King Jr., Jeffrey Mccracken and Mike Spector report.  “The Obama Motor Co.,” reads the headline on the Journal’s editorial. “In resurrecting an industrial auto policy that even the French long ago abandoned, the President has made himself GM's de facto CEO. Our guess is that he'll come to regret it as much as taxpayers will.”  “Owning G.M.,” is The New York Times editorial. “President Obama owes American taxpayers and voters a candid and detailed explanation of the government’s goals and the levers it intends to use to achieve them.”  (ABC’s Charlie Gibson is on the road from a Chevy dealership, in Bordentown, N.J., for Monday’s “World News.”)  It’s enough to make one pine for a confirmation fight — where at least the battle lines are clear. Could this be where the president finds bipartisanship? “The longer Republicans have remained on the defensive, the better Mr. Obama has fared,” John Harwood writes in The New York Times. “If Judge Sotomayor performs well at the Senate confirmation hearings, she has a chance to approach the breadth of support in 2005 for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. He split the Democratic caucus: 22 for, 22 against.”  “Republicans need their ‘Sister Sonia’ moment,” Bloomberg’s Al Hunt writes. “Today it’s the Republicans who are subsidiaries of a narrow base. They could start broadening their appeal by rejecting some of the wilder rhetoric over President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic selected for the high court.”  But might the president be risking brushfire when he plays his own straw man? Headline on ABC’s Jake Tapper’s blog item, off of the Saturday radio address: “First President in US History to Have Voted to Filibuster a Supreme Court Nominee Now Hopes for Clean Process.”  The rollout continues Monday. The White House has arranged for a group of Sotomayor’s former law clerks to send a letter to Senate leadership, offering praise: “Judge Sotomayor is thoughtful, engaged, and well-prepared during oral argument, showing an extraordinary grasp of the factual details and legal nuances of her cases,” they write. “She is a judge who is tough and fair, yet highly respectful of her colleagues in the judiciary (including those with whom she sometimes disagrees) and the litigants appearing before her. Nor does she ever lose sight of the real-world impact of her decisions. Our view of Judge Sotomayor mirrors her reputation among her colleagues on the bench and among members of the bar who have practiced before her, who widely respect her intellectual dynamism, collegiality, and balanced, fair jurisprudence.” The fight the GOP wants? “The ones who come after her can't attack her character or credentials. So they come at her with ignorance and fear,” Mike Lupica writes in the New York Daily News. “Guys like [Newt] Gingrich don't just make her look smarter than he is because of this. They make her look better.”  The fight the GOP won’t rule out — yet: Asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos whether a filibuster is possible, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said: “I think it's really premature to say that or to speculate.” Sen. Chuck Schumer, R-N.Y., declared Sotomayor “virtually filibuster-proof.”  Reserving judgment — along with political fire: “Republican senators who will be meeting with President Obama's Supreme Court nominee this week held their cards tight Sunday, though one lawmaker asked that appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor apologize for a remark she made in 2001,” Tom LoBianco reports in the Washington Times.  What will come back, no doubt: The New Haven firefighters’ case is “likely to be a hot-button issue at her confirmation hearings,” Joan Biskupic writes for USA Today. “During Supreme Court arguments in April, it appeared that a majority might be ready to reverse the 2nd Circuit decision. Justice David Souter, whom Sotomayor would replace, was among the justices expressing sympathy for New Haven. He said cities end up in a ‘damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.’ A ruling is likely by the end of this month.”  “In a decision that could fuel controversy over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, the high court this month is expected to overrule one of her key appellate court rulings,” David G. Savage reports in the Los Angeles Times. “The ruling in the firefighters' case promises to be one of the most important of the Supreme Court term because it could affect public agencies across the nation. It is sure to gain even greater notice now that President Obama has nominated Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Critics contend that Sotomayor's opinion shows that she would tilt in favor of racial minorities.”  Where do the politics lead here? (We’ve already had a presidential statement — and an immense volume of blogospheric noise.) “A Johnson County man is expected to face charges today in Sunday’s slaying of Wichita physician George Tiller, one of a handful of doctors in the United States who performed late-term abortions,” per the Kansas City Star.  Coming Monday: The liberal “America’s Future Now” (formerly “Take Back America” — but winning requires rebranding) conference begins in Washington. Per the news release: “A coalition of progressive groups will announce today that they are poised to spend more than $82 million on a campaign to fix the nation’s health care system this year, at a news conference opening this week’s ‘America’s Future Now’ conference in Washington. . . . Energized and unified after last year’s elections, progressive groups are coordinating their efforts and mobilizing independently to fight special interests standing in the way of President Obama’s progressive agenda.” Monday’s speakers include Jared Bernstein of Vice President Joe Biden’s office, Robert Borosage, Mitch Stewart of Organizing for America, John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, Anna Burger of Change to Win, Howard Dean, pollster Celinda Lake, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. But might attendees still feel lonely? “President Obama will not make the trip up Connecticut Avenue to address the group,” per ABC’s David Chalian. “The annual conference is adjusting to new political realities in more ways than simply the lineup of speakers. . . . Obama and his White House team have appeared pretty committed in their efforts to hang on to that all important and vast center in American politics. The president has been reluctant to take up the culture wars of administrations past, and on signature issues such as health care and energy, Obama has strived for broad consensus over a policy dictate from the White House.” Also driving the week: Look for Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to outline the healthcare bill, after leaks started emerging late last week. “Now the policymakers who for months have been promising to overhaul the health care system have to start doing it,” USA Today’s Susan Page reports. “The prospects look promising, but the pitfalls that have undermined efforts since the Truman administration to guarantee health care coverage for nearly every American remain.”  “I'm not blowing smoke — this is coming together,” said Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. “With an August deadline to pass a bill, a compromise that once seemed unimaginable is considered quite possible, both sides say,” Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown writes. “Congress this week begins a two-month sprint to pass legislation overhauling the health care system — an aspiration that has eluded generations of American politicians. The task is exceedingly complex and faces the legislative equivalent of an Ironman triathlon, tested at every stage by monied interests, political alliances and an estimated 13-figure price tag.”  “Congress returns this week to face an agenda stuffed with difficult, high-profile issues that will test the ability of Democrats and the White House to deliver health care, energy and spending legislation while simultaneously contending with a Supreme Court nomination,” The New York Times’ Carl Hulse writes.  Says White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel: “There has been a high level of confidence building on the capability and capacity of the Congress because it has it hit every major legislative mark to date.” Union wars: Unite Here’s John Wilhelm really doesn’t like SEIU’s Andy Stern: “I believe SEIU has a major responsibility for the likely failure of the Employee Free Choice Act, and I say that regretfully,” Wilhelm tells the Las Vegas Sun’s Michael Mishak. “When you add up Andy Stern’s efforts to stifle local unions and undermine contract standards, his fight with Unite Here and the corruption issues of SEIU in California, it’s doing a lot of damage.”  The DCCC picks up the pace against “just say no” House Republicans. Radio ads are launching Monday in six congressional districts: those held by reps. Don Young, R-Alaska; Brian Bilbray, R-Calif.; Tom Rooney, R-Fla.; Thad McCotter, R-Mich.; Peter King, R-N.Y.; and Charlie Dent, R-Pa. A sample: “Did you know Congressman King voted against the Economic Recovery Plan? He opposed an $800 tax cut and opposed creating or saving 215,000 New York jobs. Tell King to put New York first.” Looking ahead to the Middle East trip: “President Barack Obama says he hopes his June 4 speech to the Muslim world will repair broken trust. He may find his audience disagrees on what needs to be fixed,” Bloomberg’s Daniel Williams and Edwin Chen report. “Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, say some. Dispel Western perceptions all Muslims are terrorists, say others. Then there are those focused on what the U.S. should — or shouldn’t — do about civil-liberties breaches in Islamic countries.”  “Analysts and scholars characterize the visit as a major opportunity and say Mr. Obama must do more than use lofty rhetoric if he wants to restore some of the international good will lost during the Bush administration,” Christina Bellantoni writes in the Washington Times.  “If President Barack Obama thought he could deliver the promise of a few Israeli concessions during his upcoming Cairo speech to the Muslim world, he was sorely mistaken,” Time’s Tim McGirk reports.  Don’t forget the Europe end: “When he ran for president last year, Obama argued Bush's diplomacy had alienated U.S. friends abroad and promised to deliver international backing for U.S. initiatives by listening to allies rather than dictating to them. The results so far are inconclusive,” Reuters’ David Alexander writes.  And it’s only June: “Now it comes down to five votes,” Pat Doyle reports in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Almost seven months after a U.S. Senate election that was too close to call, five justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court will hear arguments today on whether problems with absentee ballots justify reversing a lower-court ruling that declared DFLer Al Franken a 312-vote winner over Republican Norm Coleman.”  Also in court Monday: “Gov. Mark Sanford faces an uphill battle to win Monday’s U.S. court hearing over $700 million in federal stimulus money. That’s the assessment of most constitutional experts interviewed by The State,” John O’Connor reports. “Sanford, who opposes accepting the money unless an equal amount is used to pay down state debt, has asked U.S. District Court Judge Joe Anderson to decide whether the issues raised in three lawsuits over the money should be decided in federal or state court.” 
The Kicker: “Frankly, it's evolving.” — Former President Bill Clinton, on his position on gay marriage.  “I have great respect for Charlie Rangel but in this case, he's just plain wrong.” — Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., after Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said President Obama should “make certain he doesn't run around in East Harlem unidentified.”
Today on “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast: Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa.; GOP strategist Lenny Alcivar. Noon ET.  Follow The Note on Twitter: For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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