Conservative commentators have been criticizing how President Obama handled the Chrysler bankruptcy, saying that because the Administration pushed the secured creditors to take less than the UAW, which was unsecured, the basic tenets of contract law were violated. If the Administration had actually forced the secured creditors into this position, by passing some new law or threatening to arrest them, I would completely agree with these commentators. Rule of law is an essential underpinning of the American system.
But Obama did not “force” the creditors to do anything; he simply applied leverage. This is what parties do in contentious business negotiations. Whether it’s a bankruptcy or unwinding a marketing partnership, when it gets ugly the businesspeople start deploying whatever leverage they have. In Obama’s case, he had two levers: 1) the bully pulpit of the presidency; and 2) the fact that without the UAW on board, Chrysler was worthless and the creditors would get nothing.
With his bully pulpit lever, Obama did indeed “browbeat” the creditors. But hey, this is hardball here, and there were billions of dollars at stake. Plus these are vulture funds…they are used to being insulted. With his second lever, Obama simply was playing the game of chicken that is usually played in a bankruptcy, and he won. The creditors were saying “give us what we want or we’ll take over the company” and Obama replied “take what we’re offering or we’ll give you the company.” The creditors blinked first; they knew that if they took over the company it would essentially disintegrate overnight, and they would be left with a bunch of factories nobody would buy.
I’m as big a supporter of the rule of law as anyone – I have long said that exporting law is more important than exporting democracy – but this is not a case of the government ignoring the law. Instead it’s a case of government playing by the same rules as business, but playing better, which is something the right wing ideologues just can’t handle. And lest you think I’m alone in this, here are a law professor and a private equity professional saying similar things.
Which isn’t to say that I am a blanket supporter of the auto bailouts, because I’m not. I would have been perfectly happy to see Chrysler shut down. But any criticism should be on the merits, not based on a spurious claim being advanced for political reasons.