The White House caused a news frenzy -- at least on one side of the political spectrum -- by leaking the announcement that Elizabeth Warren would be named as the person who would create and head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (C.F.P.B.). This process is known by various names such as "floating a trial balloon" or "running it up the flagpole to see who salutes." As a result of the feedback offered up today, the White House will likely refine their actual formal announcement to address a few outstanding concerns. Until there is the specificity which comes from a formal announcement, though, things are a bit fluid (which led to the amusing Huffington Post headline: "Everyone Is Basically Confused About What Elizabeth Warren Will Be Doing").
Such an announcement will likely come late tomorrow, in the grand old White House tradition of late Fridays being "take out the trash day." No disrespect to Warren is meant or implied by that, that's just what it's called. The White House figures late Friday is the best day to release stuff they'd rather not become some huge controversy, in the hopes that fewer people will notice. As I said, this is traditional. And it just may work tomorrow as intended, to defuse the pushback on Warren's new position from both the Left and the Right.
The Right is going to howl no matter what. They just are. Barack Obama could name Ayn Rand to the post, and they'd still likely howl, just because Obama suggested her. Hey, it's an election season, so it is entirely to be expected. But by naming her as some sort of "acting" or "initial" head of the C.F.P.B., she will avoid the grueling process of Senate confirmation, at least for now. The Republicans would doubtlessly have loved to have this fight in the Senate, and now they will be denied such amusement. Which they're going to whine about. But such whining will die down a lot faster than the months-long haughty indignation a Senate confirmation fight would have surely given rise to. Republicans are just itching to portray Warren as some sort of theological heir to Karl Marx, but now it'll be a very small story in a very busy news week. Which is exactly what the White House would prefer.
Of course, if we could count on Democrats in the Senate to stand up for the little guy instead of the Big Banks, then Democrats could score a lot of points through winning such a confirmation battle. But the problem is, we can't. Senator Chris Dodd, in particular (who is chair of the relevant committee), isn't a big Warren fan. Even though he personally has nothing to lose, since he's leaving the Senate this year (because he could accurately read the polls, and knew he'd get voted out if he didn't gracefully beat a hasty exit). I'm sure the soon-afterwards announcement that Dodd has accepted a megabuck position lobbying for the Big Banks and Wall Street will come as a huge surprise to absolutely no one. Ahem.
But the Left seems not to be willing to see Warren's appointment as a victory, either. At least not at first, as the initial reactions on the blogosphere were pretty negative. Obama (the storyline went) was chickening out on appointing her as permanent head to the C.F.P.B., and had come up with a healthcare-like "compromise" to the situation that was simply not acceptable. In other words, nobody would be happy with the outcome. The Left has been on "Hair-Trigger Freakout Alert" on the Warren nomination for quite some time now, and had all but convinced themselves that Obama was going to disappoint, so this should be seen as just a tiny backlash compared to the howls of rage which would have erupted if Obama had snubbed Warren altogether.
No wonder the White House gets touchy about the "professional Left" at times.
If Obama had tried to nominate her as head of the new agency, it would have meant a delay of months (if not longer, with a new Senate) before she ever would have been able to do a thing. This way, she can start pretty much the day after the announcement. Secretary Treasury Tim Geithner (who, it is reported, is also not a big Warren fan) is now on board with the plan. Some news reports even have it that Warren herself was the one to request a shorter assignment than the five-year full term she would get if confirmed by the Senate.
So what, one wonders, is the problem? President Obama could have named her as a "recess appointment" to head the new agency, it is true, but that would have brought with it a few problems. Namely, that it's harder (politically) to make such a recess appointment for someone who hasn't already been formally nominated, and already watched their nomination languish forever in the Senate. Traditionally, this is how the recess appointment is used. The White House nominates someone to a job. The Senate refuses to act on it (using one of the numberless ways they have to avoid working). The Senate then goes on one of their many vacations (which are officially -- and fittingly, I might add, for the playground imagery it conjures up -- called "recesses"). The President -- surprise! -- immediately announces a "recess appointment." The other party grumbles. Life goes on.
But to do so with Warren may limit how long she would have in the job. Recess appointments have limited lifespans, which is why John Bolton had to leave his recess-appointed job of United Nations Ambassador under George W. Bush. Whereas this interim appointment to create the new C.F.P.B. (as I understand it, but I could be wrong about this, I admit) can continue for Obama's entire first term in office.
To put it another way, Congress handed Obama a new Executive power. He has decided to use it. By doing so, he avoids a fight in the Senate. But the Senate agreed to give him this new power in the first place, so they really can't complain.
And the Left really shouldn't complain, either. On many other issues, they've been begging Obama to flex his Executive muscle much stronger than he has (on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," for instance). So why should anyone be upset now that he's doing exactly that?
Personally, I put a little more trust in Elizabeth Warren herself. From all reports, she doesn't sound like the type of person who would take some sham job, and if she finds out she doesn't have the power to get things done, then she will likely walk away from the job voluntarily. She (again details should be seen as no more than rumors, until the formal announcement) will have a direct line to the president himself, who is her personal friend. This keeps Tim Geithner in check, meaning the dark intimations that he'll be pulling Warren's puppet strings somehow are somewhat far-fetched at best. Again, it's hard to see Warren putting up with that sort of arrangement very long.
And the best news is that if Warren creates a strong and effective agency, then at some future time perhaps she will be more "confirmable" in the Senate. It'll be a lot harder to make the "she's a radical" type of case if she has already successfully created a well-run agency. There's nothing in the rumored arrangement to stop Obama from naming her to a five-year stretch in the job at any time, and she may find she likes the job enough to want to keep it for awhile, even if it does mean facing a Senate confirmation battle.
Personally, I am highly optimistic that this is going to turn out well for all concerned (well, maybe not for Republican whiners, but you can never please everybody, can you?). I see this as good politics for Obama and the Democrats, and really can't see much downside at all. This is a huge olive branch the White House is offering to the Lefties, one which they were demanding loudly. It may help with the Democrats' "enthusiasm gap" in the upcoming elections. Most American voters have never heard of Warren, and likely won't know her name a year from now -- but the ones who volunteer to walk precincts and man the phone lines in Democratic operations across the country do know who she is. Oh, yes indeedy. And they're precisely the ones that need to get excited about working for the Democratic cause right now.
Obama's expected announcement tomorrow will doubtlessly clear up some of the rumors flying around today about exactly what job Elizabeth Warren will soon be doing for the administration. And it will doubtlessly address many of the issues raised about her new job during this "trial balloon" phase. That's why you leak things a few days early -- to gauge the possible reaction, and to shore up your position beforehand. But when the dust settles next week, I cannot see how Elizabeth Warren's new job is going to be seen as anything but positive by the people who matter in the Democratic base.
[Program Note: I will be interviewed live tomorrow via podcast on East Village Radio, by the inestimable T.J. and the Tux. Their show "Shock and Awesome" runs from 10:00 A.M. until noon (Eastern Time) and can be streamed live, or listened to later (if you miss it). I will likely appear around 11:30, so tune in if you want to hear what I sound like when I haven't had enough sleep, and way too much caffeine. Heh. I'll be talking about the primary results, and the elections in general.]
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant