Inside the Oval Office With Obama, Summers and Geithner

Question: Is this a sea change in how government works?

Steven Rattner:  No, I think it was an appropriate reaction to an extraordinary set of circumstances.  I think by and large, and you see that people like myself now are leaving the government and the more traditional command structure remaining in place.  I think it was just a function of... a reflection of the extraordinary circumstances, much the way FDR brought in many special advisors during the Great Depression and in the aftermath.  So I think as the economy recovers, we have an infrastructure in the government that’s well-equipped to deal with a more normal set of economic circumstances. 

Question: What role has Larry Summers served in the White House?

Steven Rattner: I am the self-appointed President of the Larry Summers fan club.  I think Larry Summers is fantastic.  I’ve known him for 15-ish years, I’ve worked for him in Washington now and I think there’s  nobody I’ve ever encountered with a more interesting mind, a more interesting approach to problems, a willingness to work harder, and more committed to public service. And so I think his stepping down is unfortunate.  De Gaulle once said that the graveyards are filled with the bodies of indispensable men—and so nobody is irreplaceable in this world—but he has very, very big shoes to fill.  I think its an unfortunate symbol that he stepped down of some people perceive as some kind of shift away from what I would call centrist economics, which I think is the right path for the country, and I think we’ll all be watching closely to see who the President puts in his place and what kind of a message that sends about where the Administration is going.  But if they could clone Larry Summers and put him back in that chair, I think it would be a wonderful thing. 

Question: Should Tim Geithner stay at his post as Treasury secretary?

Steven Rattner: Tim Geithner is also a terrific public servant and a very smart guy and a clear thinker.  There were some rocky early days, not just for him, but for the entire economic team, in large part because the problems were so great that people really were skeptical, I guess, to a degree, about what could be done.  But I think Tim has clearly settled into the job, I think he’s found his pace, I think he’s found his voice, and I think he’s emerged as the unquestioned leader of the economic team and he should definitely stay.

Question: Describe President Obama’s leadership style?

Steven Rattner: I found it very much on a par with some of the best CEOs who I have ever worked with.  He was decisive when his advisors had differences, he was supportive, when they didn’t have differences, he was willing to spend the time and dig into problems, many of which were not in his normal walk of life, and spend the time that was needed, but he didn’t dawdle over them.  He was a decider in the end.  And I thought he made all the right decisions and really was determined to get it right.  So I’m a big fan of the President.  

Question: What surprised you about working in government?

Steven Rattner:  I’d spent enough time around Washington and had certainly read and heard enough about Washington that I went in with pretty low expectations about government.  I went in assuming this completely impenetrable bureaucracy filled with career people who went home every day at 4:00 and really didn’t care that much.  And I was pleasantly surprised. 

The power... it is difficult to get the government to move forward. It is a collaborative, consultative type of process and there is a lot of red tape, as there has to be with an organization of that size.  But when the government decides to do something, the power it has and the ability to affect a change for the good is extraordinary.  We were able to deploy $82 billion into these companies and restructure them fundamentally in a way that we never could have done in the private sector. 

And secondly, I would say that contrary to my impression, perhaps, there are many, many talented career people in the government.  There are some who go home at 4:00 and who just view it as a way to get a paycheck, but I was really quite amazed at how many career people there were who didn’t get paid overtime, who were never going to be Secretary of the Treasury or President of the United States, who were there until all hours, on weekends, and really committed to doing the best job they could.  So I came away with very good feelings about government in general, I came away with less-good feelings about Congress, which I found to be quasi-dysfunctional and as much a part of the problem as part of the solution.  And I think that was very disappointing as I got to see that.

Recorded September 23, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown

The former "auto czar" says working in government requires a much more collaborative, consultative, compromising management style than working in the private sector.

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