Sep 172010
 
So President Obama did not appoint bailout critic and middle-class champion Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

He did appoint her to an important-sounding post as a White House adviser with responsibility to set up the agency, which after all was her idea in the first place.

Is the president actually marginalizing her with the window dressing of a fancy title? Or will she have a meaningful role in setting up the agency and shaping policy?

The punditocracy has gone into overdrive analyzing the president’s handling of Warren.

The positive spin is that it’s a savvy political move on Obama’s part to get her to work right away creating the agency and avoid a Republican filibuster, and that the president will finally be hearing from an insider not under Wall Street’s spell.

The more skeptical interpretation sees it as the latest example of the president’s failure to push back against Wall Street on issues that Wall Street cares about. As he has in the past, rather than picking a principled fight with Wall Street (and Republicans) Obama found a way around it.

The third spin, from Barney Frank, is that Warren actually didn’t  want a permanent appointment now, keeping her options open to either exit the administration or accept the job later.

Writing on WheresOurMoney.org earlier, Harvey Rosenfield, eloquently described why Warren is the best person to lead the new agency.

Warren has been a long-time critic of predatory lending practices and the American way of debt. In her role as congressional monitor of the federal bank bailout she’s been a fearless straight shooter and a down-to-earth demystifier of the complexities and foibles of high finance.

But Obama’s handling of her appointment reinforces the impression that he’s weak in the face of Wall Street’s power. Why in the world, with a high-stakes election less than 2 months away, would the president want to avoid a fight with Wall Street and Republicans on behalf of the undisputed champion of the middle-class and consumers? If the president does intend to appoint Warren to head the agency later, does he seriously think it will be easier later?

Unlike most of the president’s other top economic advisers, Warren has never been cozy with Wall Street. But it’s simply not realistic to expect the president is about to get more aggressive in reining in the big banks with Warren on the inside.

The president has shown that he is capable of ignoring perfectly good advice from well-respected advisers with impressive job titles within his administration. Remember Paul Volcker? The former Fed adviser has been a lonely voice within the Obama administration warning about the continuing dangers of the too big to fail banks and too much risky business in the financial system. But the president used Volcker as little more than a populist prop, preferring the more conciliatory approach championed by his other top economic adviser, Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Fed president Ben Bernanke. These three effectively fought off the tougher aspects of financial regulation at the same they time touted themselves as real reformers. While the president made clear Warren will work directly for him, will she be able to match Summers, Geithner and Bernanke, all seasoned bureaucratic infighters? She’s done little to endear herself to them and has publicly tangled with Geithner.

There’s no question that Warren, a Harvard bankruptcy law professor, has already played an extraordinary and important role in helping understand the financial collapse and its fallout. She’s never been anything but forthright, no-nonsense, principled, unafraid to speak truth to financial power and to demand accountability. She will need all those qualities as well as thick skin and nerves of steel for her new job. The stakes are high. I wish her well.

About Martin Berg

Martin Berg, WheresOurMoney.org editor, is a veteran journalist.

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