President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials met in the Oval Office for just over an hour with top executives of Ford, General Motor and DaimlerChrsyler AG's Chrysler Group.
The automakers later told reporters they'd had a good meeting with the president. "The president clearly understands the importance of the business to the United States and the global economy," said Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally.
The auto executives said they pressed their concerns about health care and trade issues, while making clear that the troubled industry does not want a federal bailout.
Mr. Bush told the CEOs he's committed to make the auto industry as vibrant and solid as possible, CBS Radio News White House correspondent Mark Knoller reports.
"We found a lot in common," said President Bush, who met with the leaders just hours before he leaves on a trip to Asia and an meeting in Vietnam with Asia-Pacific economic partners. The message he will give those partners, Mr. Bush said, is "just treat us like we treat you... Our markets are open for your products and we expect your markets to be open for ours, including our automobiles."
"These leaders are making difficult decisions, tough choices to make sure that their companies are competitive in a global economy. And I'm confident that they're making the right decisions," Mr. Bush told reporters. He took no questions from reporters.
However the auto executives met with reporters outside the White House after their meeting.
Tom LaSorda, president and chief executive officer of DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, said the automakers stressed that "specific issues like health care" don't only face the automobile industry, but "every level of government as well."
GM chairman and CEO Richard Wagoner said, "It was a very good dialogue, very open back and forth."
The president cited a "mutual desire to reduce our dependance on imported oil."
"And so we found a lot in common," Mr. Bush said. "We'll have a continuing dialogue that's in our interest. In government we find out ways that we'll be able to "work to make sure this industry is as vibrant and solid as possible. And, so it's the beginning of a series of discussions we'll have, not only with me, but with people in our government."
The executives were stressing they do not want a bailout similar to the 1979 measure approved by Congress that helped preserve Chrysler Corp. Instead, they wanted to talk about the spiraling costs manufacturers face on health care, the advantages Japanese automakers have because of a weak yen and their work to develop alternative fuel vehicles.
"We're not going into this meeting seeking specific relief for our industry," said GM spokesman Greg Martin. "We understand that we have to win in the marketplace but there are issues of national importance like health care and trade that affect the competitive balance."
All three automakers spend more on health care per vehicle than steel, which adds about $1,000 to the cost of a car built by the Big Three. GM, the nation's largest private provider of health care, spent $5.3 billion on health care last year for 1.1 million employees, retirees and their dependents.
The meeting with the president is just the beginning for what the U.S. automakers hope will be an ongoing dialog not just with the president but now with a Democratic congress that they hope will be more sympathetic to some of the union issues they are having, CBS News business reporter Alexis Christophorus reports.
Wagoner urged Congress last summer to provide a "vigorous and robust" prescription drug market, develop national health information technology and focus on high-cost, catastrophic cases among a small number of patients.
The automakers have also sought support on trade, arguing that Japan's weakened yen makes imported goods from Japan cheaper and enhances profits Japanese automakers make in the U.S. The executives were able to speak to Mr. Bush in advance of his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday in Vietnam.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Monday the auto industry "built the middle class of this country, and it's critically important that the president understands that how the U.S. government acts in a global economy to create a level playing field is critical to whether or not we are going to have a middle-class way of life."
"The Big Three are making good cars. We haven't been making good policies," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. Michigan's congressional delegation met with auto industry officials on Monday in advance of the meeting. The executives were not expected to visit Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
President Bush generated criticism in Michigan when he told the Wall Street Journal last January that automakers need to manufacture "a product that's relevant." Underscoring their work on advanced technology, Wagoner and Mulally arrived at the White House in hybrid vehicles produced by their companies.