Manufacturing czar expected to have more sway than others

The administration chose Labor Day to announce that Ron Bloom, the head of the auto recovery taskforce, would serve as its first manufacturing czar.

Bloom’s background and new position differs from the two czars who served under President George W. Bush. Bloom is a former union official and remains close to leaders in organized labor. His two predecessors were businessmen.

Bush’s manufacturing czars also were placed in the Commerce Department, where they were considered to have little sway in the administration.

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Bloom, on the other hand, was entrusted with a high-profile presidential task force on autos and will operate within an office that has broad authority over domestic policy.

Bloom already has a few wins under his belt, which should further serve to increase his influence. He was a fierce advocate of the “cash for clunkers” program — which offered consumers subsidies for trading in gas-guzzlers for more fuel-efficient vehicles. And he gets kudos for quickly steering General Motors and Chrysler through bankruptcy as the auto task force chief.

Bloom now will work closely with the White House as a senior counselor for manufacturing policy to the National Economic Council, which coordinates domestic economic policy. He will also stay on as the head of the auto task force, which is based in the Treasury Department, the White House said.

“He is in a position to come up with creative ideas and can marshal the resources behind them,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. “It is a place that these other guys who were off in Commerce never came too close to.”

Working with the National Economic Council, Bloom’s reach will stretch beyond Commerce to the Energy, Labor and Treasury departments, Eisenbrey said.

But Bloom also faces a big challenge in revitalizing a sector devastated by the recession.

Although a report issued last week showed growth in the sector for the first time in 19 months, unemployment levels remain high.

The overall rate stands at 9.7 percent, the highest level since 1983.

U.S. manufacturers reported 63,000 lost jobs in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bloom’s appointment won instant backing from unions, and was also hailed by some business groups.

“We are thrilled with this appointment. It is a great choice for this job,” said Thea Lee, policy director for the AFL-CIO. “Ron Bloom brings a great depth and expertise to this position.”

Bloom was a former special assistant to the president of the United Steelworkers Union and also worked for the Service Employees International Union.

But the aide also has experience with Wall Street, working for investment bank Lazard Freres & Co.

“The [National Association of Manufacturers (NAM)] is pleased the Obama administration is appointing a manufacturing adviser to serve as a part of the National Economic Council,” said an NAM spokeswoman in a statement. “We look forward to working with Ron Bloom on important issues to strengthen our world’s largest manufacturing economy.”

NAM said Bloom should work on lowering tax burdens and reducing regulatory costs for manufacturers, and that he should look for ways to expand the domestic energy supply, maintain a skilled workforce and expand the innovative capacity of manufacturing.

Given those broad challenges, “it makes sense to have a senior policy position focused on manufacturing in the White House,” the spokeswoman said.

Lee hopes Bloom will help reverse several policies she believes have hampered manufacturing.

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Lee said the administration should step up enforcement of trade deals and fight back against currency manipulation by China, which labor has long said provides that country with a trade advantage. She said tax incentives for offshore production need to be voided.

Lee also expects Bloom to have a major role in the debate over climate change legislation. There is widespread concern among industrial-state senators that a cap on carbon dioxide will hurt the manufacturing sector by pushing jobs overseas to countries with lower energy costs.

So-called “buy American” provisions that favor homegrown products and tax credits for domestic industry, such as the steel manufacturers, need to be included in the final bill in order to offset potential job losses, Lee said. That should secure the votes of several industrial-state Democrats for the bill.

“If it is not done right, [President Obama] could lose those votes,” Lee said. “Those are precisely the kinds of things a manufacturing czar should focus on.”