Elizabeth Warren’s first phone call after being named to her new White House position was to a group of progressive bloggers. Is that significant? Maybe not, but it certainly looks like Warren’s appointment, and the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she will be setting up, owes a great deal to the progressives that lobbied heavily for them. The bloggers might be considered proxies for the disaffected activist base of the Party, and her affection for them was apparent.
Regarding the CFPB, Prof. Warren said she would have full authority to “hire fire, deal with the budget, set the direction, and do the things that are necessary to get this agency started.” She also noted that she’ll be serving as a key part of the president’s core team of economic advisers.
Warren’s comments on her appointment, and on the CFPB itself, were interesting. A year ago, she said, Barney Frank was one of many people who told her that the bureau was a “pipe dream” that had no chance of being enacted into law. What happened? For one thing, financial reform proved to be enormously popular. (It’s the most popular thing that’s been accomplished so far during the Obama administration, according to polls.) While a number of critical reform provisions were diluted or killed, the public’s desire to reign in the banks was so strong that it permitted the passage of other provisions once considered politically impossible. Progressives were able to channel that popular support and turn the tide in on several key provisions of the bill. There’s a lesson there that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Warren herself also became enormously popular, thanks to her own directness, intellect, ability to communicate, and most of all because of her apparent passion for protecting consumers. People are hungry for that kind of voice, which is probably why Jon Stewart said he wanted to “make out” with her when she was on the Daily Show. (Or maybe he just digs her — hey, it happens.) She also had the benefit of the best PR campaign money can’t buy — a public display of loathing and contempt from the Wall Street bigwigs and political power brokers who became universally reviled after the crisis. Burson Marsteller can’t buy you that kind of coverage.
They hate her. They really, really hate her. That’s why it took so long to appoint her. But she proved harder to kill than Rasputin, rising again and again after one politician after another declared her nomination dead. And it probably was, which is why this appointment makes sense. Christopher Dodd took the lead in fighting her nomination, using one inept defense after another. He even made veiled threats at the CFPB itself in his latest tantrum, despite having already assured himself a high-paying career on Wall Street. And Sen. Judd Gregg thinks it’s “outrageous” that “they’ve not even put her up” for nomination. Gregg says it’s “an attempt by the administration once again to circumvent being responsible to the American public through the Congress” — where, if Gregg and his fellow Republicans had their way, that nomination would never even come up for discussion. (They call that “being responsible to the American people.”)
But will she have real influence and authority? Prof. Warren says yes. She says the President wants her to “do all the things that are necessary to get this agency started.” She’ll have “plenty of authority,” she says, and she’s “confident (the president) has given me the tools to get the job done.”
How will you resist the power of lobbyists? she was asked. “I will have a strong ally in the President of the United States,” she answered. “I met with the President (recently) to talk about the issues, so (she knows) this is central. We will make this work because it is important to the President of the United States and it is important to Secretary Geithner.” For those who might have said “you had me right up until ‘Secretary Geithner,’” she noted that she’s having lunch with Geithner on Monday to discuss foreclosures, among other things, and to ask how she can be of help.
It would be naive to think that she won’t face roadblocks. Larry Summers is legendary for his ability to outmaneuver anyone whose voice would undercut his own, and he’s been successful at doing just that in the White House. But Elizabeth Warren isn’t one to go gently into that good night, and that’s presumably understood by all parties.
There will be other issues to navigate. Warren may have a fundamental difference in philosophy with the administration’s other key economic voices. She said in an interview that she was raised with “a fundamental belief that people are doing the best they can.” That contrasts sharply with other key administration figures whose public and private comments suggest that they view many consumers, particularly underwater homeowners, as people whose own greed got the better of them. While that may make life difficult for her at times, it also makes her presence on the White House staff a critical addition to the team.
Warren, who ran a blog herself together with her students, had an obvious rapport with the bloggers. She was on a first-name basis with several of them. When Susie Madrak told Prof. Warren she “appreciates what she does,” the spontaneous answer was “I appreciate what you do, too.” That collegiality stands in sharp contrast with the behavior of some other White House advisers (although Tim Geithner has made himself available to political writers and bloggers to an extent that’s unprecedented for a Treasury Secretary).
It’s a good sign that, while the administration still needlessly taunts its base sometimes, they’re beginning to listen, too. That lesson shouldn’t be lost on progressives: Activism and advocacy can work. Prof. Warren’s appointment reflects the (occasional) power of the Democratic base, and she may prove to be a conduit between the base and the administration. Those of us who are vocal when our institutions fail us should be equally vocal when they come through for us. Her appointment is a tremendous win for the public. It’s also a sign that, despite the many setbacks and disappointments it’s faced, the progressive base is occasionally able to win and win big.
(If you’re confused by the title, it’s a reference to Chris Hedge’s brilliant book.)