Big Three Meet 43

The auto execs say they had a 'candid and productive' discussion with President Bush.
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Chief executives from Detroit's Big Three automakers had no concrete developments to report after their meeting Tuesday with the commander in chief.

General Motors'

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CEO Rick Wagoner,

Ford

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CEO Alan Mulally and

Chrysler's

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Tom LaSorda took questions from reporters at the White House after their long-awaited sit-down with President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other members of the administration.

While they expressed a general sense of agreement with the president about the problems facing their business models, they had no specific announcements to make about any help on the way for Motown from Washington. All three CEOs were careful to say that they weren't seeking any financial bailouts from taxpayers.

"We appreciate the president meeting with us today on issues that we believe are not only critical to the domestic auto industry, but also affect overall American manufacturing competitiveness," said the automakers in a joint statement after the meeting. "We had a candid and productive discussion on such specific issues as energy security, the affordability and quality of health care, the trade imbalance caused by an artificially weak yen, and the rising costs of vehicle production materials."

They said they supported President Bush in his call for "continued development and use of renewable fuels as part of lessening America's dependence on imported oil."

For years, the Big Three have been reeling from market share losses to their Asian-based competitors, who enjoy a lower-cost business model, coupled with the financial burdens of spiraling legacy costs that are the result of outdated agreements with organized labor.

For his part, President Bush has long voiced an unwillingness to use government to help Detroit become more competitive. Last May, he canceled an unconfirmed appointment to meet with auto executives in order to make a last-minute speech in Texas on border security, an issue that was garnering a flurry of headlines at the time.

The message for Detroit at the time appeared to be that the president had higher priorities. Now, the meeting has finally taken place only a week after Democrats plundered the President's political capital in a Congressional electoral victory. But even with his power greatly diminished, President Bush had little to offer the U.S. auto industry except promises of a shared understanding and continued discussions.

"We've had a fascinating discussion about a lot of major issues that we share in common," Bush told reporters at the Oval Office. "One, of course, is rising health care costs. And I assured these leaders that the government is addressing rising health care costs through a variety of initiatives that I think over time are going to make a significant difference in not only their cost, but the cost to the U.S. taxpayer, as well."

In response to the U.S. auto industry's allegations that the Japanese government has artificially weakened its currency in order to give its manufacturers as trade advantage, Bush said he would deliver a message of fair trade, not free trade, to U.S. partners.

The president said, "my message to our trading partners is just treat us the way we treat you. Our markets are open for your products, and we expect your markets to be open for ours, including our automobiles."