President Bush told Detroit-based auto industry leaders on Tuesday he recognized they had "tough choices" to make their companies competitive in a difficult global environment and promised a "continuing dialogue" between government and industry.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials met in the Oval Office for just over an hour with top executives of Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrsyler AG's Chrysler Group.
The automakers later told reporters they'd had a good meeting with the president. "The president clearly understands the importance of the business to the United States and the global economy," said Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally.
The auto executives said they pressed their concerns about health care and trade issues, while making clear that the troubled industry does not want a federal bailout.
"We found a lot in common," said Bush, who met with the leaders just hours before he leaves on a trip to Asia and a meeting in Vietnam with Asia-Pacific economic partners. The message he will give those partners, Bush said, is "just treat us like we treat you... Our markets are open for your products and we expect your markets to be open for ours, including our automobiles."
"These leaders are making difficult decisions, tough choices to make sure that their companies are competitive in a global economy. And I'm confident that they're making the right decisions," Bush told reporters. He took no questions from reporters.
The automakers made the case that Japan's weakened yen makes imported goods from Japan cheaper. On exchange rate policy, GM chairman and CEO Richard Wagoner said they discussed the automakers' "strong conviction that the Japanese yen is systematically undervalued, which helps them to maintain significant trade balance surpluses in our industry."
"I can't honestly say it appears the president 100 percent saw it that way but we had a good dialogue," Wagoner said.
Tom LaSorda, president and chief executive officer of DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, said the automakers stressed that "specific issues like health care" don't only face the automobile industry, but "every level of government as well."
Wagoner said, "It was a very good dialogue, very open back and forth."
Bush cited a "mutual desire to reduce our dependence on imported oil."
"And so we found a lot in common," Bush said. "We'll have a continuing dialogue that's in our interest. In government we find out ways that we'll be able to "work to make sure this industry is as vibrant and solid as possible. And, so it's the beginning of a series of discussions we'll have, not only with me, but with people in our government."
The executives were stressing they do not want a bailout similar to the 1979 measure approved by Congress that helped preserve Chrysler Corp. Instead, they wanted to talk about the spiraling costs manufacturers face on health care, the advantages Japanese automakers have because of a weak yen and their work to develop alternative fuel vehicles.
"We're not going into this meeting seeking specific relief for our industry," said GM spokesman Greg Martin. "We understand that we have to win in the marketplace but there are issues of national importance like health care and trade that affect the competitive balance."
All three automakers spend more on health care per vehicle than steel, which adds about $1,000 to the cost of a car built by the Big Three. GM, the nation's largest private provider of health care, spent $5.3 billion on health care last year for 1.1 million employees, retirees and their dependents.
Wagoner urged Congress last summer to provide a "vigorous and robust" prescription drug market, develop national health information technology and focus on high-cost, catastrophic cases among a small number of patients.
Bush generated criticism in Michigan when he told the Wall Street Journal last January that automakers need to manufacture "a product that's relevant." Underscoring their work on advanced technology, Wagoner and Mulally arrived at the White House in hybrid vehicles produced by their companies.