Washington: It is not every 31-year-old who, in a first government job, finds himself dismantling General Motors Corp. 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 never stepped foot in an automotive assembly plant until he took on his nearly unseen role in remaking the US automotive industry.
Nor, for that matter, had he given much thought to what ailed an industry that had been in decline 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,” notes Steven Rattner, one of the leaders of US President Barack Obama’s automotive task force—Deese was thrown into the auto industry’s maelstrom as soon as the election-eve parties ended.
In driver’s seat: Brian Deese is the little-seen force behind the US automobile industry revamp. Stephen Crowley / NYT
“There was a time between 4 November and mid-February when I was the only full-time member of the auto task force,” 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 auto makers’ downward spiral, he has emerged as one of the most influential voices in what may become Obama’s biggest experiment yet in federal economic intervention.
While far higher-profile members of the administration are making the big decisions about Detroit, it is Deese who is often steering them there.
A month ago, when the administration was divided about whether to support Fiat SpA’s bid to take over much of Chrysler Llc., it was Deese who spoke out strongly against simply letting the company go into liquidation, according to several people who were present for the debate.
“Brian grasps both the economics and the politics about as quickly as I’ve seen anyone do this,” said Lawrence H. Summers, the head of the National Economic Council, who is not known for being patient whenever he believes an analysis is subpar—or disagrees with his own. “And there he was in the Roosevelt Room, speaking up vigorously to make the point that the costs we were going to incur giving Fiat a chance were no greater than some of the hidden costs of liquidation.”
Deese was not the only one favouring the Fiat deal, but his lengthy memorandum on how liquidation would increase Medicaid costs, unemployment insurance and municipal bankruptcies ended the debate. The administration supported the deal, and on Monday a federal judge handling the high-speed bankruptcy proceeding approved the sale of Chrysler’s best assets to the Italian car maker.
Deese’s role is unusual for someone who is neither a formally trained economist nor a business school graduate, and who never spent much time flipping through the endless studies about the future of the American and Japanese auto industries.
He lives a dual life these days. He starts the day at a desk wedged just outside Summers’ office, where he can hear what young members of the economic team have come to know as “the Summers bellow”. From there, he can make it quickly to the press office to help devise explanations for why taxpayers are spending at least $50 billion on what polls show is a very unpopular bailout of the auto industry.
Several times a day he speed-walks to treasury, taking a shortcut through the tunnel under the colonnade, near the kitchens. The other day he talked about how sharply perceptions of the industry’s future changed after Obama’s election.
“At the first meeting with Rick Wagoner,” he said, referring to GM’s recently deposed chief executive, “they were in a very different place. He said publicly that bankruptcy was not a viable option. It’s been a long process getting everyone to look at the options differently.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES