The Man Behind the GM Solution

Jun. 1.09 | About: General Motors (GM)

Monday morning we will probably all wake up to the news that General Motors (NYSE:GM) has entered into a Chapter 11 proceeding under the United States Bankruptcy Code and most likely emerge as a nationalized industry. These events will have been orchestrated by the current administration though they don’t deserve all of the credit or discredit. There are many players that rightly deserve opprobrium.

I don’t want to spend any time this evening venting but I do want to focus for a moment on the expertise that has been brought to bear on this rather momentous decision.

An article in the New York Times featured one Brian Deese. It seems Mr. Deese has been a significant player behind the scenes in the Obama administration. He is credited with formulating many of the arguments in favor of the government’s intervention and as having labored mightily to bring about the current turn of events. Just who is this man and what did he bring to the table?

The New York Times lays that out for us:

It is not every 31-year-old who, in a first government job, finds himself dismantling General Motors and rewriting the rules of American capitalism.

But that, in short, is the job description for Brian Deese, a not-quite graduate of Yale Law School who had never set foot in an automotive assembly plant until he took on his nearly unseen role in remaking the American automotive industry.

Nor, for that matter, had he given much thought to what ailed an industry that had been in decline ever since he was born. A bit laconic and looking every bit the just-out-of-graduate-school student adjusting to life in the West Wing — “he’s got this beard that appears and disappears,” saysSteven Rattner, one of the leaders of President Obama’s automotive task force — Mr. Deese was thrown into the auto industry’s maelstrom as soon the election-night parties ended.

“There was a time between Nov. 4 and mid-February when I was the only full-time member of the auto task force,” Mr. Deese, a special assistant to the president for economic policy, acknowledged recently as he hurried between his desk at the White House and the Treasury building next door. “It was a little scary.”

But now, according to those who joined him in the middle of his crash course about the automakers’ downward spiral, he has emerged as one of the most influential voices in what may become President Obama’s biggest experiment yet in federal economic intervention.

While far more prominent members of the administration are making the big decisions about Detroit, it is Mr. Deese who is often narrowing their options.

So one of the architects of a fundamental shift in the very nature of the relationship between government and private enterprise is a 31 year old law school student that has no particular references for the job at hand. And exactly what sort of background does this fellow have that suggests he is the right man for the job.

Mr. Deese’s route to the auto table at the White House was anything but a straight line. He is the son of a political science professor at Boston College (his father) and an engineer who works in renewable energy (his mother). He grew up in the Boston suburb of Belmont and attended Middlebury College in Vermont. He went to Washington to work on aid issues and was quickly hired by Nancy Birdsall, a widely respected authority on the effectiveness of international aid and the founder of the Center for International Development.

But he wanted to learn domestic issues as well, and soon ended up working as an assistant for Gene Sperling, who 17 years ago in the Clinton White House played a similar role as economic policy prodigy. Eventually, Mr. Deese headed to Yale for his law degree. But his e-mail box was constantly filled with messages from friends in Washington who were signing up to work for the Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigns. Mr. Deese chose Senator Clinton’s.

“He was pretty quickly functioning as the top economic policy staffer through her campaign,” Mr. Sperling said. “He could blend the policy needs and the political needs pretty seamlessly.” On the day that the Clinton campaign ended, Mr. Deese left her concession speech and received a message on his BlackBerry from a friend in the Obama campaign urging him to sign on immediately to Mr. Obama’s team.

He resumed his policy work there, and found himself stuck in Chicago — unable to fly to Washington with his dog — as the economic crisis deepened. Finally, one night, he decided to get into his car with his dog and just started driving back to Washington. Tired, he pulled over to catch some sleep in the car.

“I slept in the parking lot of the G. M. plant in Lordstown, Ohio,” he recalled. The giant plant, opened during G.M.’s heyday in the mid-1960s, is where the Pontiac G5 is produced. Under the plan Mr. Deese worked on when he arrived in Washington, Pontiac will disappear.

“I guess that was prophetic,” he said, shaking his head.

Once upon a time we used to recruit people with significant life experiences to make these sort of policy decisions. People who understood and had seen the implications of governmental actions and the double edged sword that they were wielding. Now we rely on someone whose life experience is ginning up position papers for a political candidate.

Mr. Deese may be the nicest guy in the world and a genius to boot. Personally, I would prefer that he were back at Yale working on that law degree so he could come back to Washington and save the world via the Justice Department. It is an indictment of the Obama administration that they would put a person such as Mr. Deese in such a position of power. They should be able to do better.