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The Nation

Obama Prepares to Sort of Appoint Elizabeth Warren to Something

President Obama has been looking a little more focused and functional of late, talking about the need to invest in infrastructure projects to create jobs and rejecting Republican calls for the extension of George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich.

But in case anyone thought Obama was starting to "get" that America wants a president who will stand up to the economic royalists and do the right thing, White House insiders indicated Wednesday night that he has decided against appointing Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Instead, Obama is expected to appoint the hero of reformers to an advisory post where she will report to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Congress placed the bureau's powers within the Treasury Department until such time as a permanent director is appointed and confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term. But Geithner has never been seen as an advocate for the agency. And, despite the complimentary public statements regarding Warren by the Treasury Secretary, it has been broadly suggested that he has been a behind-the-scenes opponent of her appointment.

White House aides say that Warren will also report to Obama—as a presidential assistant—and that she will play a significant role in helping to create the consumer agency that is supposed to make real the promises made in the vague financial regulatory overhaul legislation passed earlier this year. Perhaps that will be the case. And it is can certainly be hoped that Warren is on track for the actual appointment that Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and others are urging him to make.

“While this is good news for American families, it is my hope that President Obama will nominate Warren to a permanent position to head up the CFPB.  She is more than deserving of the job and the Senate should have the opportunity to confirm one of the nation’s strongest consumer advocates," says Merkley.

 “The CFPB has been tasked by Congress with reining in the abuses by payday loan firms, credit card companies and predatory mortgage lenders that have stripped families of their hard-earned wealth and were a key cause of the recent financial crisis and recession.  Clearly, the new bureau has a big job to do, and Elizabeth Warren is the right person to do it.  She will put the interests of ordinary Americans first and ensure that our nation’s financial products are safe for working families and small businesses.”

Unfortunately, the right person will not be doing it for awhile. As such, Obama is avoiding a fight that he should be waging.

By failing to formally install Warren in the position that economists and activists say she is uniquely prepared to fill, Obama is missing one of the most important opportunities of his presidency.

Warren should not be reporting to Geithner, whose subservience to Wall Street has done severe damage to the administration's ability not just to the correct the course of the economy but to crystallize financial issues that continue to play an essential role in our politics.

Indeed, if Obama were serious about tipping the balance away from Wall Street and toward Main Street, he would replace Geithner with Warren.

That's too much to ask of this administration.

But it should not be too much to ask that Warren be given the job she conceived and campaigned to create.

The president could have appointed Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and dared the Senate to reject a woman who has become the face of the fight to hold big banks, credit card companies and speculators to account. If Republicans threatened to block her appointment, they would have clarified the question of which party is working for Wall Street and which party is on the side of Main Street.

Or, if he really feared a filibuster would have prevented Warren from getting to the vital work of creating a muscular consumer protection agency, Obama could have made a recess appointment and put her in the position immediately. His critics would surely have screamed about Obama moving too aggressively to, um, protect consumers from being ripped off by Wall Street profiteers -- a complaint that the president and his party would have been wise to invite.

Progressive campaigned for a recess appointment, arguing that such a move could have helped to close the enthusiasm gap that Democrats fear will make it hard to get base voters to the polls this fall. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee had even highlighted the differences between Warren and Geithner, arguing in petition language that: "Elizabeth Warren has proven that she is willing to stand up to Wall Street on behalf of consumers and is the logical choice to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Tim Geithner is a longtime Wall Street insider, and if he's recommending against Elizabeth Warren that's all the more reason to appoint her."

Instead, by making Warren an "assistant," Obama runs away from the fight—and gives up another chance to clarify the economic battle lines not just of the fall campaign but of his presidency.

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