Populist O is back

President Obama, announcing another dip into the federal coffers today to save the auto industry, blamed a “failure of leadership”—perhaps a potshot at the soon-to-be departed GM chairman, Rick Wagoner. The workers were not at all fault, the president said. “I will fight for you,” he declared. I’m sure that line was popular back in the factories, but in his eagerness to stay ahead of the populist curve Obama seems to have ignored entirely the role of the unions. Like the fact that for decades the UAW has resisted the kinds of changes that would have made the U.S. auto industry marginally competitive with the foreign companies that have been beating it up since the ‘70s. One example: the "Jobs Bank," a two-decade-old program under which auto workers continue to get paid wages and benefits often topping $100,000 a year after their companies stop needing them. The Treasury Department has demanded that the UAW cut compensation to levels competitive with Nissan, Toyota and Honda. But it’s not happening. The Big Three still pay about $55 an hour in wages and benefits to hourly workers, while Japanese automakers pay nearly $10 less an hour, according to Barclays Capital. I don’t feel sorry at all for Rick Wagoner, but let’s spread the blame fairly. Cheap populism on such a critical issue is a losing proposition.