Elizabeth Warren’s problem is not with the Republicans—though they have worked hard to demonize her. Her real problem is with the “boys” at the Treasury Department and Timothy Geithner, the head “boy” in charge of the president’s banking policies. Maybe she also has a problem with the “boys” at the White House. We are soon to find out. In the next month or so, Barack Obama must decide whether or not he will appoint Warren to chair the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
This ought to be a slam-dunk for him. After all, Elizabeth Warren invented the idea of a new regulatory agency to protect hapless consumers from predatory bankers. Obama embraced the concept as his own and it is one of his few distinctively original accomplishments. Warren knows consumer fraud. For many years, as a savvy reform critic, she courageously called out the banking industry on its most notorious practices. Her dynamic and plainspoken advocacy was essential in getting Congress to include the proposal in the financial reform legislation enacted last summer.
Yet Obama hesitated. For nearly a year, he has played coy and held off naming her to the job. We presumed that was because Republicans vowed to block her nomination unless the law is altered to weaken the CFPB and appease angry bankers. But that explanation doesn’t add up. Obama could always put her in the office through a recess appointment that gets around Senate confirmation. Yet he didn’t do so. What’s up with that?
Put aside the usual partisan bombast. I asked a Very Reliable Source to provide the inside skinny and this is what he told me: “All this is really about is the boys don’t want to have an independent woman in their clubhouse.” When I recounted this remark to my wife, she said, “What else is new?”
Tim Geithner, said my Very Reliable Source, really, really doesn’t want Elizabeth Warren in the position where she is sure to be a tough-minded and independent voice on major financial-policy issues. As CFPB director, Warren would also sit on the new “systemic risk” council of regulators who decide very large questions like “too big to fail.” The other regulators can outvote her easily enough, but Warren has an alarming history of personal candor. She says what she thinks, out loud and in public. That naturally disturbs the club members, all of whom have a rank history of making life easier for the big boys of banking.
Warren made her integrity clear when she served as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel digging into the financial crisis and bailouts. Her investigations turned up alarming facts the bankers and bank regulators wished to avoid. Furthermore, Warren was often dissenting on legislative issues Geithner and team were pushing in the congressional debates on financial reform. Geithner doesn’t tolerate contrary thinkers in his midst; witness the galaxy of Wall Streeters he recruited to run the Treasury department. Geithner is a favorite of the president’s, perhaps because he is absolutely faithful to the financial establishment’s best interests.
So what does Obama really think about all this? Despite his eloquence, the president is adept at not revealing that. The VRS doesn’t know either, but thinks the rise of Elizabeth Warren created a dilemma for Obama. He genuinely admires her work and character. But he really, really doesn’t want go against his Treasury secretary and other close advisors he relies upon. Obama’s new chief of staff is the man from JP Morgan Chase. William Daly says he has recused himself on these matters. Does he leave the room when Warren’s name comes up in the Oval Office?
Obama repeatedly pushed the question off, hoping things might change and resolve it for him. He added Warren to Treasury as the principal organizer staffing the new consumer bureau. She has evidently done a good job — another reason Republicans keep attacking her. Being against Warren helps GOP fund-raising, but then Obama is also heavy into fund-raising himself. Maybe he postponed a decision on Warren so he could harvest more Wall Street money. The administration approached other notables about taking the job, but everyone turned it down. In Democratic circles, this job belongs to Elizabeth Warren and nobody dares to jump ahead of her. Lately, political operatives are suggesting she should run for senator in Massachusetts – another ploy by the big boys to show this girl the door.
Ultimately, Obama has to decide. The question is no longer about financial reform or even politics. The question is whether this president has the nerve to include a smart, tough woman who thinks for herself on his governing team. If the answer is no, he will pay dearly for the cowardice.