Obama’s Miniscule Moment

In today’s Washington Post, David Broder writes of Obama’s Muscle Moment. Broder writes

On Sunday night and Monday morning, word leaked out of Detroit that G. Richard Wagoner Jr., the veteran CEO of General Motors, was stepping down immediately at the behest of the White House.

The next day, Obama made it clear that Wagoner had been pushed out (along with most of GM’s board of directors) as part of the strict terms the president was laying down for a 60-day extension of the bailout loan the Bush administration had provided last year to help the staggering automaker avoid bankruptcy.

And later

In addition, Obama announced, Chrysler would have only 30 days more to work out its merger with Fiat or it, too, would be ticketed for bankruptcy.

It was a dramatic show of muscle, targeting two of the erstwhile Big Three, and the economic mainstay of the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan, which rank among the top five political pillars of the Democratic Party. Michigan’s Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, protested that Wagoner was being made a scapegoat. But Sen. Carl Levin commented that when Obama met with members of the Michigan delegation, he made plain that “there wasn’t much point in arguing whether or not it was fair or unfair, wise or unwise. It was a decision that he didn’t ask us about; he informed us.”

Oh, come on. Dramatic? Granholm and Levin are not exactly Reid and Pelosi.

The most dramatic example of that kind of reappraisal in my experience was supplied by Ronald Reagan in the summer of 1981, his first year as president. PATCO, the union representing government employees who were air traffic controllers, presented a series of contract demands including $10,000-a-year pay increases and shorter hours to relieve the strain of their high-tension jobs.

When negotiations stalled, PATCO threatened to strike, despite federal law forbidding it. When the union carried out its threat, Reagan gave its members 48 hours to get back to work, warning that those who stayed out longer would be fired.

The union gambled that Reagan would not run the risk of disrupting air service and aggravating so many business travelers. But it lost. Twelve thousand of its members — all but the few dissidents who stayed on the job — were summarily fired. When the strike effectively collapsed after five days, Reagan barred the rehiring of the strikers for any government jobs.

The pushing out of Wagoner was nothing like the firing of PATCO controllers. In the case of Wagoner, it was a case of bayonetting the wounded. It might have been a necessary move, but brave or dramatic? Um, no. And who are Wagoner’s natural allies? Just CEO’s who, a recent poll indicated, are only slightly less popular than Casey Anthony. In the case of PATCO, organized labor as a whole took a huge hit.

Who was inconvenienced by the pushing out of Wagoner? Nobody. But when the controllers were fired, the flying public was inconvenienced with significantly reduced flights, and the FAA supervisors and military personnel with controller training – that were asked to sit down at the boards at the towers, approach control facilities, and Air Route Traffic Control Centers throughout the country – were certainly stressed for months and even years while the FAA’s air traffic controller pipeline struggled to produce controllers to backfill the departed.

Reagan’s refusal to rehire the strikers may have been a defining moment in his presidency. I doubt that the departure of Wagoner will be seen as a defining moment in Obama’s presidency. For the sake of the country, I hope that it is not. It is but a trifle.

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