“The president’s instruction to us was that we had to come up with a solution that would work on a commercial basis, that didn’t involve indefinite federal financing,” Mr. Deese said. “But we didn’t want liquidation, which would have even worse effects. So the question was how do you design a very substantial restructuring, and do it fast.”
Mr. Deese’s route to the auto table at the White House was anything but a straight line. He is the son of a political science professor at Boston College (his father) and an engineer who works in renewable energy (his mother). He grew up in the Boston suburb of Belmont and attended Middlebury College in Vermont. He went to Washington to work on aid issues and was quickly hired by Nancy Birdsall, a widely respected authority on the effectiveness of international aid and the founder of the Center for International Development.
But he wanted to learn domestic issues as well, and soon ended up working as an assistant for Gene Sperling, who 17 years ago in the Clinton White House played a similar role as economic policy prodigy. Eventually, Mr. Deese headed to Yale for his law degree. But his e-mail box was constantly filled with messages from friends in Washington who were signing up to work for the Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigns. Mr. Deese chose Senator Clinton’s.
“He was pretty quickly functioning as the top economic policy staffer through her campaign,” Mr. Sperling said. “He could blend the policy needs and the political needs pretty seamlessly.” On the day that the Clinton campaign ended, Mr. Deese left her concession speech and received a message on his BlackBerry from a friend in the Obama campaign urging him to sign on immediately to Mr. Obama’s team.
He resumed his policy work there, and found himself stuck in Chicago — unable to fly to Washington with his dog — as the economic crisis deepened. Finally, one night, he decided to get into his car with his dog and just started driving back to Washington. Tired, he pulled over to catch some sleep in the car.
“I slept in the parking lot of the G. M. plant in Lordstown, Ohio,” he recalled. The giant plant, opened during GM’s heyday in the mid-1960s, is where the Pontiac G5 is produced. Under the plan Mr. Deese worked on when he arrived in Washington, Pontiac will disappear.
“I guess that was prophetic,” he said, shaking his head.