March 29: President Obama fires the CEO of General Motors four years ago today

Rick Wagoner
Rick Wagoner

It was on this date in 2009 that the White House revealed the detailed restructuring plan for General Motors with a bombshell — the dismissal of GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner. Never before had a U.S. president forced out the head of an automaker; but then again, no automaker had ever sought tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to stay in business.

There were precedents for such a move; during the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration required banks receiving emergency aid to submit letters of resignation from their top three officers, which the Treasury Department would then decide whether to accept. Steven Rattner, the "auto czar" who led the Obama administration's plans, later wrote that the news of the firing came as a surprise to Wagoner — and the reaction as a surprise to the administration, which had assumed the change wouldn't create the firestorm that it did:

Promptly at 9:15, Rick arrived and took a seat on the red fake-leather couch in my office. I took a chair from my conference table and placed it opposite him. I went straight to the point: "In our last meeting," I said, "you very graciously offered to step aside if it would be helpful, and unfortunately, our conclusion is that it would be best if you did that."

Wagoner would be replaced by Fritz Henderson, who would be replaced by Ed Whitacre, who himself would be replaced by Daniel Akerson, within a span of three years. Rattner and Whitacre have since written books about the bankruptcy and revival of GM, but since that day, Wagoner has never spoken publicly about his departure.

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