GM chief tells Obama how to save auto industry

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Friday, June 27, 2008
— Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama asked the head of General Motors Corp. on Thursday what he could do to preserve the U.S. auto industry if elected, saying automakers “may need some bridges” to reach the future.

GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner said the industry needed help to shift toward more-efficient vehicles or new technologies.

He said the U.S. government should:

— Provide more support for basic research into new technologies, along with tax credits or other incentives for consumers to buy them once they are available.

— Assist manufacturers in converting factories.

Building new technologies “takes a lot of capital,” Wagoner said. “One of the biggest issues the U.S. industry faces is we have relatively weak balance sheets due to a lot of things ... so support in improving the manufacturing base is important.”

Obama’s statements — coming on the same day GM’s stock hit lows not seen since the mid-1970s over worries about oil prices and the company’s cash flow — suggest that Detroit automakers’ troubles could get more attention from whoever succeeds President George W. Bush.

In a panel discussion on the economy with Wagoner and a dozen other business leaders, Obama touted his proposals for $150 billion in spending over 10 years to boost so-called green industries, along with plans for improving education and addressing health care costs.

But he began the session by telling Wagoner that he had visited GM’s truck plant in Janesville, Wis., this year, one that GM has since said it would close by 2010 because of rising gas prices and the market shift away from large trucks.

“The question is, assuming I’m president, what would be the one or two things that the federal government can do most constructive to make certain that in the race against time for the U.S. automakers, that you are able to make this pivot as quickly as possible?” Obama said.

The exchange came amid a rapprochement between Obama and the auto industry. During the primaries, Obama’s chiding of the industry for opposing his efforts to toughen fuel economy rules was a staple of his campaign speeches.

On Wednesday, Obama met with Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally, who called the meeting “very productive.”

Meanwhile, the campaigns of Obama and Republican candidate John McCain have sparred for days over competing plans to reduce U.S. dependence on oil. Obama called McCain’s proposal for a $300-million battery technology contest a “gimmick.” McCain’s campaign has attempted to label Obama “Dr. No” for opposing expanded domestic drilling.

After the panel discussion, Wagoner said that Obama’s views of Detroit’s automakers had evolved since the speech at the Detroit Economic Club last year in which he called out the industry on its faults.

“His comments reflect a much more detailed understanding of what’s going on in the industry,” Wagoner said. “I appreciated the chance to talk about it with him today.”

(c) 2008, Detroit Free Press.

Last updated: 9:16 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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