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Obama's Blue-Collar Crusader


As a boy, Ron Bloom spent summers at Habonim camps, Jewish youth programs modeled on Israel's kibbutzes that stressed the value of manual labor and social justice. As a teenager, he boycotted green grapes in support of César Chávez, the farmworkers' charismatic union leader. He went on to Harvard Business School and Wall Street. And then he helped industrialist Wilbur Ross save U.S. Steel (X) and President Barack Obama bail out General Motors (GM). Now he wants to rescue U.S. manufacturing.

For many of his 55 years, Bloom seems to have been in training for his job as Obama's senior counselor for manufacturing. He's the guru behind Obama's drive to get the U.S. to create more factory jobs, a position he began on Labor Day 2009. He's been traversing the country ever since, trying to get executives in all manner of businesses to rethink a 50-year trend of sending work abroad.

Good luck with that, skeptics say. Manufacturing accounts for just 11 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, down from a peak of 28 percent in 1953. Moreover, Republicans are poised to gain more power in congressional midterm elections this fall as polls show the public souring on the Administration's efforts to revive a long-staggering economy.

"I'm trying to find some common ground, and I'm trying to find it in a time of enormous uncertainty," the soft-spoken Bloom says in an interview in his Treasury Dept. office, where he has a collection of Mr. Potato Head dolls and Spider-Man paraphernalia.

TRW Automotive (TRW) Chief Executive Officer John C. Plant, who recently invested $100 million on a factory making fuel-saving technology, is among the two dozen business leaders he has met with. Over dinner in Detroit, Bloom said he wanted to see more such investments. Plant says he told Bloom that may not happen because U.S. business suffers from a "crisis of confidence" due to a lack of clear direction in tax, energy, and other policies.

As an adviser to the United Steelworkers for 13 years, and before that as a manufacturing specialist at Lazard (LAZ) and his own boutique investment firm, Bloom participated in more than 100 bankruptcies and restructurings, trying to balance the realities of business with the need for jobs. "While he's a tried-and-true union guy, he's realistic," says Ross, who first worked with Bloom during the bankruptcy of U.S. Steel.

Even when he worked at Lazard, Bloom embraced "worker capitalism," says investment banker Steven Rattner, who recruited Bloom to be his deputy as Obama's auto bailout czar. Bloom succeeded Rattner in that job in July 2009. "Most people took their Harvard MBAs and went off to trade derivatives, and he took his and went off to try to save manufacturing and save workers," Rattner says.

The bottom line: Corporate executives are skeptical of Obama's manufacturing adviser Ron Bloom's quest to revive the "Made in America" label.

Green is Detroit bureau chief for Bloomberg News.

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