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Elizabeth Warren or Bust!

4 years ago
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I've been out of Washington for a little while -- escaping the heat and the disheartening politics. I've even managed to go for more than a week without tweeting (with a few lapses). But it's hard to escape people who want to talk about what's happening back within the Beltway. What's edifying is discovering what folks outside Washington focus on.

Those of us who follow politics and policy for a living often have numerous matters on our to-watch lists; recently, that roster has been long, including Afghanistan, extending the Bush tax cuts, the coming congressional elections, the Colorado Senate primary, the silly Ground Zero mosque controversy, and more. People outside the politerati usually have a truncated list, and often imbue a particular issue or controversy with special significance. A highly unscientific survey -- based on comments made to me by highly-educated, self-identified, vacationing liberals who feel let down by President Barack Obama -- shows that a top priority for Obama's base these days is Elizabeth Warren.

Warren is the plain-speaking, tough-on-Wall-Street Harvard professor who heads the congressional oversight panel that monitors the TARP bank bailout, and she's a (or the) leading candidate to take over the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection that was created by the Wall Street reform legislation recently signed into law by Obama. (This agency that was first proposed by Warren.) Several members of my sample group -- completely unprompted -- each said the same: If Obama doesn't appoint Warren, I'm giving up on him.

In years past it would be odd for the appointment of a regulator to draw so much notice and to become such an edgy grassroots issue. (MoveOn, labor unions, and other progressive outfits have been demanding that Obama give her the job.) But the Warren affair has become a high-stakes political moment.

This is understandable. Obama's supporters on the left are yearning for a clear deliverable. Obama, as the White House repeatedly points out, has achieved several impressive progressive victories. But size and significance aside, they have been hazy and, for lefties, occasionally bittersweet wins. The stimulus package was not as big as many economists said was necessary, and Obama muffed the message war. (Admittedly, it is difficult to take credit for not losing another 2 million jobs.) The health care reform measure did not include a public option and ended up a complicated hodgepodge, with many of its benefits not scheduled to hit for several years. The Wall Street reform legislation was another complicated melange of new rules not easily fathomed by the average voter -- or yours truly. Moreover, these big accomplishments occurred alongside unpalatable bailouts for financial firms and auto companies and an escalation of the unpopular Afghanistan war. Obama's big wins have not been as easy to process as President George W. Bush's: passing supersized tax cuts and winning congressional approval for his invasion of Iraq.

But there's nothing unclear about Warren. She doesn't mince words. She's a populist academic who is comfortable going on Jon Stewart's show to decry credit card companies and other financial pirates for ripping off America's families. As a non-corporatist with no love lost for Wall Street, Warren would stand out as a member of Obama's economic team. She would provide a counterbalance to the pro-bail-out gang running Obama's economic policies.

If Obama chooses Warren for this post, that would trigger a battle with Republicans and Wall Street -- which could be a fight worth having. It would juice up the Democratic base before a congressional election, and such a clash would establish a strong precedent, indicating that Obama is drop-dead serious about unleashing this new agency on financial predators. Regulators have much latitude in deciding how vigorous to be -- especially in the face of industry opposition and manipulation. With a Warren nomination, Obama would be saying that he and his administration are ready -- eager! -- to confront the scammers of Big Finance.

Warren was at the White House last week, discussing her possible appointment with Obama officials. But her supporters have worried that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is opposing Warren's appointment -- which Treasury officials deny (though Geithner clearly favors another candidate, Michael Barr, an assistant secretary of Treasury). This particular presidential appointment has become cloaked with the sort of palace intrigue Washington denizens crave -- and for Obama supporters outside Washington all the behind-closed-days maneuverings have enhanced the symbolism of this decision. By selecting Warren, Obama can demonstrate that he's willing to fight for a progressive champion, that he's willing to take it to the GOPers, that he's willing to expand the confines of his economic team to include an articulate and intelligent populist -- that he's willing to do something clear for his base.

Last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs created an unnecessary controversy when he dismissed the "professional left" for being too rough on Obama. ("I hear these people saying he's like George Bush," he said. "Those people ought to be drug tested.") Though the liberal blogosphere is not quite the same thing as the party's base, this was still not the best way to win over that base three months before a difficult congressional election. It looked as if Gibbs was in denial about the concerns of Obama's core supporters -- a subject the White House ought to ponder with seriousness.

Progressives are talking about Warren as if this could be their last straw regarding Obama. I doubt it. As important as this appointment is, there are larger issues to fret about: what to do in Afghanistan, how to re-ignite the economy. Yet what Obama does with Warren will be telling. After all, why not appoint and then fight for the obvious (and best) choice? Should he spurn Warren, the president will have a problem that extends beyond the "professional left."

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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