Pick Elizabeth Warren

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, August 9, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Pick Elizabeth Warren

Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Obama should relish the fight.

One of the annoyances of being president is that nearly everything is depicted as a "huge test" to pass or fail. The president's commitment to core values or his ideological fidelity or his political survival--something momentous is always "on the line." In truth, American presidents have multiple marking periods. They can flunk and flunk again and still succeed if they get the big things right.

So Obama will eventually recover if he decides not to appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which is the best-known part of the new financial-regulation law. But he would be making a terrible mistake to reject her, on both political and substantive grounds.

The working assumption in the White House is that Warren, a colorful Harvard Law professor and fierce consumer advocate, would be the hardest candidate to confirm. This is 100 percent wrong. The main alternative is Michael Barr, a well-regarded but little-known Treasury official who helped draft the bill. Barr is just as progressive as Warren, but the liberal base would be so demoralized by Obama snubbing Warren that any other nominee would be hamstrung from the start. And he is exactly the type of Obama nominee that Republicans on Capitol Hill have been burying all year. Because he's obscure, the GOP could delay Barr's nomination for months without fear of fallout. Warren's high profile gives her clout going into any hearings. Democrats who try to block her would be savaged by progressives in their home states. (Warren has become a rock star for the Netroots.) After some concern about wavering Democrats, all except possibly Ben Nelson seem set to back Warren, who may not be a household name but has considerable stature within the party.

Republican senators vote along party lines against Obama on almost every issue this side of Afghanistan. Having opposed the consumer bureau, the leadership will do everything it can to weaken it, including opposing Warren. But this particular obstructionism carries a price. The GOP would look horrible going into the fall campaign trashing the one official who has stood up for 200 million credit-card holders against predatory lenders. A few Republican senators (including Snowe, Collins, and Grassley) know this and seem willing to break ranks and oppose a filibuster.

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