Jacob Sullum

On Monday, after President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to nationalize General Motors, GM's vice chairman, Robert Lutz, exulted, "Their No. 1 goal is to make us successful." But Obama seems to have three No. 1 goals: turning a profit, building cleaner cars, and creating American jobs. These priorities clash with one another, with the president's professed desire to "get out quickly," and with his promise of a "hands-off" approach.

On March 30, Obama assured a wary public that "the United States government has no interest in running GM." It was during the same speech in which he announced his firing of GM's CEO, Rick Wagoner, demanded a more "credible" restructuring plan, suggested that GM had not "consolidated enough unprofitable brands," unilaterally promised government-backed warranties for GM cars, and argued that the company should focus on "manufacturing the fuel-efficient cars and trucks that will carry us towards an energy-independent future."

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This week, the president reiterated, "What we are not doing -- what I have no interest in doing -- is running GM." It was during the same speech in which he announced that the federal government was forcing GM into bankruptcy, deciding what creditors should get (regardless of what bankruptcy law says), and taking a 60 percent stake in the company.

Obama insisted, "We are acting as reluctant shareholders because that is the only way to help GM succeed." He took it for granted that letting GM fail -- and thereby letting its assets be distributed to more productive uses -- was not an option.

Although Republicans portray it as yet another example of Obama's socialist tendencies, his GM plan reveals him to be deeply conservative. He can imagine a world in which the internal-combustion engine is obsolete but not one in which GM is.

"We cannot, and must not, and we will not let our auto industry simply vanish," Obama declared in March. "This industry is like no other; it's an emblem of the American spirit, a once and future symbol of America's success." On Monday, he said GM, "this iconic American company," must be given "a chance to rise again."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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