SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The United States needs to solve its debt problems by making some tough decisions, including changes in entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and also needs to take steps to improve a failing public education system, the top executive at General Motors Co. said Friday.
"We have to get our fiscal house in order," Dan Akerson, who became GM's chairman and CEO a year ago, told about 300 University of Notre Dame students during a question-and-answer session following a 40-minute speech Friday.
A student asked Akerson whether he would take a public stance in favor of President Barack Obama's job-creation plan, saying it could be a chance for GM to do some good and give back some of its profits after receiving a $50 billion government bailout. Akerson said that is not his job, saying corporations exist to make a profit and enhance shareholder value.
"We are not a job bank," Akerson said.
He said he hopes Obama is successful in turning the economy around. But he said it's Obama's job to solve that problem, not his. The president unveiled his $447 billion jobs plan Thursday night.
"Just a bit of editorializing, he's going to have to answer how he's going to fund this thing," he said. "That's the $64,000 question that's on all the talk shows this morning. I hope he has an answer for that."
Obama's plan would increase and extend a Social Security payroll tax cut for workers. It also provides a tax cut to employers. Most of the proposals stand little chance of being implemented without the backing of congressional Republicans.
Akerson also talked about the need to improve public education, calling the system "failing." He said students are basically learning in the same fashion as they did in the 1920s — sitting in classrooms with chalkboards.
"There's got to be new ways to teach our children and get them to world standards," he said.
During much of his speech, Ackerson touted GM's turnaround since the 2009 bailout, saying it is financially sound, gaining market share, adding jobs and pointed to its second-quarter profits, which nearly doubled to $2.5 billion. GM remains part-owned by the government as part of the bailout.
"The post-bankruptcy, new GM, we have a new business model," he said. "We make money at the bottom of the cycle, and we are a very cyclical industry. ... This company was not able to make any money when we were in the high cycle in 2007."
He talked about the successes of Cadillac, Buick and the Chevrolet Cruze compact car. He said next year GM will come out with an engine that will burn both liquid gas and compressed natural gas.
He drew a laugh from a few students when he said GM wanted to make the Chevrolet brand "cool" among the younger generation of millennials, who came of age in the new millennium.
He said GM has established a strategic relationship with MTV "to pursue one thing, to convince millennials like you to fall in love with Chevrolet. I think we have a good shot at it."
To be successful in the future, he said, GM is going to have to be strong, smart, fast and adaptable. It's also going to have to transition to vehicles powered by electric batteries, compressed natural gas and hydrogen fuel cells.
"That will happen, in all likelihood, in your lifetime," he said.
Tom Coyne can be reached at http://twitter.com/TomCoyneAP