Saying No to a Car Czar: Obama’s Smart First Step on Detroit

Saying No to a Car Czar: Obamas Smart First Step on Detroit

Times are tough, but imagine how much worse they would be if the United States were dependent on foreign oil or Americans were still using illegal drugs.

Fortunately, our leaders solved those problems long ago, by boldly appointing czars to clean them up. So naturally, now faced with the near death of the U.S. auto industry, the government’s impulse was to crown a car czar.

But with time running out, the Obama Administration has decided to take the old-fashioned approach. Instead of creating a post with a big title and vague powers to deal with the problem, the elected President and his ample bureaucracy will decide what’s next for the cash-strapped industry.

When Congress extended emergency loans to General Motors and Chrysler in December, lawmakers required the companies to deliver detailed plans for getting their houses in order. Management, labor and bondholders would all have to give ground — and the car czar was supposed to be the enforcer.

But a czar was never crowned. With those plans due Tuesday — and talks with union leaders and debtors apparently bogged down — President Barack Obama has reportedly decided to send an emissary to knock heads at the bargaining table, while saving the final decisions for himself and his existing economics team.

The key decision: more loans or a government-backed bankruptcy process Surely a question of such magnitude should end up in the Oval Office — which begs the question of why a czar was contemplated in the first place. There are two reasons, one good and one bad.

Washington czarism reflects the fact that some of our thorniest problems sprawl over turf belonging to more than one agency. Bruce Reed experienced this firsthand as director of domestic policy under President Clinton — the czar czar, if you will. He concluded that whether you say “czar” or “point person,” it’s important that someone have a mandate that cuts across competing domains. “The Cabinet may carry out policy,” Reed says, “but the White House makes policy. Every White House has to find the right balance to make clear who has responsibility for what and how to resolve differences when turfs collide.”

That’s the idea behind the Administration’s climate czar, Carol Browner; its yet-to-be-named health-care czar ; the contemplated urban-affairs czar; rumored soon-to-be-named drug czar Gil Kerlikowske; and other wonder-working bureaucratic potentates.

But creeping czarism is also a way of exploiting the undemocratic yearning for strongmen, playing on the idea that compromise is fine when the stakes are small, but when the chips are down, only a tyrant will do. Generations of Russian dissidents braved prison, execution and revolution to rid their nation of czars. And the Founding Fathers so feared czarlike power that they fashioned a government intricately checked and balanced. Hard to imagine Madison and Mason agreeing to put the really difficult problems in the hands of unelected superstaffers.
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