At President Obama's prime-time press conference Wednesday night, marking his first 100 days in office, banking issues took a back seat to other pressing concerns like the health of the auto industry. But the last question asked Obama "what kind of shareholder are you going to be” as the government takes stakes in car companies, the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and some banks. Here is the President's answer, minus a passage strictly about the car companies.
"Well, I think our — our first role should be shareholders that are looking to get out. You know, I don't want to run auto companies. I don't want to run banks. I've got two wars I've got to run already. I've got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we're going to be.
"We are in unique circumstances. You had the potential collapse of the financial system, which would have decimated our economy, and so we had to step in.
"As I've said before, I don't agree with every decision that was made by the previous administration when it came to TARP, but the need for significant intervention was there, and it was appropriate that we moved in.
"With respect to the auto companies, I believe that America should have a functioning, competitive auto industry. I don't think that taxpayers should simply put — attach an umbilical cord between the U.S. Treasury and the auto companies so that they are constantly getting subsidies, but I do think that helping them restructure at this unique period when sales — you know, the market has essentially gone from 14 million down to 9 million — I don't think that there's anything inappropriate about that.
"My goal on all this is to help these companies make some tough decisions based on realistic assumptions about economic growth, about their market share, about what that market is going to look like, to prevent systemic risk that would affect everybody, and, as soon as their situations are stabilized and the economy is less fragile so that those systemic risks are diminished, to get out, find some private buyers, and... I don't think that we should micromanage, but I think that, like any investor, the American taxpayer has the right to scrutinize what's being proposed and make sure that their money is not just being thrown down the drain.
"…But I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy, you know, meddling in the private sector, if — if you could tell me right now that, when I walked into this office that the banks were humming, that autos were selling, and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.
"And — and that's why I'm always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of, Oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government. No. I would love a nice, lean portfolio to deal with, but that's not the hand that's been dealt us.
"And, you know, every generation has to rise up to the specific challenges that confront them. We happen to have gotten a big set of challenges, but we're not the first generation that that's happened to. And I'm confident that we are going to meet these challenges just like our grandparents and forbears met them before."