A Test for Barack Obama (and maybe Mark Kleiman): what price Elizabeth Warren?

Will Barack Obama go out of his way again to depress the base and snub Elizabeth Warren for chair of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency?

So Mark and I have been sniping at each other over the President.  I think it’s fair to attack him when he caves on things, and when he takes actions that demoralize the base.  Mark says that Obama knows what he’s doing, that he did after all get elected President, and that he has delivered on key points, so please just STFU.

But now we’ve got another test coming.

The Senate passed the financial reform bill yesterday over the Republican pro-Wall Street filibuster.  That bill includes a relatively powerful consumer financial protection agency, whose chair will be appointed by Obama.  The intellectual godmother of that agency is the brilliant and wonderful Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, who has stood up for the middle class for year against the depradations of the finance industry.  Obama has praised her in speeches.

But now via San Stein at the Huffington Post, we learn that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner opposes her, mainly because of the scrutiny she has shined on the management of TARP and related programs, and probably because Geithner is very comfortable representing the views of those on Wall Street.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Larry Summers opposes her, also.

There is NO reason — none — not to give the job to Warrenm except that Wall Street doesn’t like her.  She knows more than anyone about what this agency should do, how it will work, etc.

This is just the sort of thing that drives me up the wall about Obama — he simply will not do anything to get the base excited.  He won’t attack Republicans consistently; he won’t provide a counter-narrative to Reaganism; he was reluctant to use recess appointments to block GOP obstructionism (although that is slowly changing); he has bought into a pointless and meaningless war in Afghanistan just to please Beltway insiders (probably his worst substantive mistake).  He is the quintessentially McLuhanian “cool” politician.  He clearly has to make compromises, particularly in a legislative process under unprecedented obstructionism and where many of the choke points are controlled by such as Kent “Fecal Matter” Conrad.    But when it comes to executive areas, such as appointments and foreign policy, he doesn’t have that excuse.

 He’s a damn good President, but he’s looking at some ugly midterms and needs to get core Democratic voters excited.  Overlooking Warren will — once again — depress the base. 

So what will he do?  And if he depresses the base again, are we allowed to say so?  Or are we just supposed to salute smartly and say, “We never have been at war with Wall Street”?

UPDATE:  Not Sam Stein’s HuffPo piece: Shahien Nasiripour.  I know less about him as a reporter, but given the history between Warren and Geithner, it is credible.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

33 thoughts on “A Test for Barack Obama (and maybe Mark Kleiman): what price Elizabeth Warren?”

  1. But now via San Stein at the Huffington Post, we learn that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner opposes her,

    We learn no such thing; take another look at Stein's sourcing. It's certainly plausible, but you are leaping to a conclusion based on vapor.

    Now, given that you are convinced that she is the right person for the job, I assume that you have some knowledge about Warren's ability to manage a large organization that none of the rest of us have. Please, share this experience with us.

  2. Hi Michael —

    Fair enough re Stein, but it is also fair to say that Geithner and Summers don't like Warren and never have. She was never brought in to the decision-making of the administration; she was never considered for a Treasury slot; her attempts at getting information out of Treasury were always blocked. I also think that Stein is good, reliable reporter.

    As for managerial ability, again you have a point, but again it is overstated. Warren has chaired the TARP oversight commission and by all accounts she has done a superb job. We can say that she has better managerial skills than, say, Larry Summers, who was a disaster in managing Harvard. Perhaps a low bar, but certainly high enough for this administration.

  3. Larry Summers, who was a disaster in managing Harvard.

    I've got no love for Summers, but I also have no idea how good he was at "managing Harvard", nor do I know whether that's even the job of the President of Harvard. He was terrible at representing Harvard (and worse at representing himself, or maybe too good at representing his actual self), but I'm not sure it was really a managerial post.

  4. By chance, this evening I have been reading the very shrill Bob Kuttner on Obama (A Presidency in Peril; reading the "Continuity and Collusion" chapter will either raise your blood pressure or drive you to drink, and there is very little second-guessing in it). Summers absolutely sucked at managing Harvard and it is all in the public record, outside of the minutes of the senate(?) of the Harvard University College of Arts and Sciences, from whence current president Drew Gilpin Faust hails. You are right, WT, it isn't a managerial post of the usual kind. But that didn't stop Summers from treading where he didn't belong and f*cking up much of what he meddled in: running off Jack Meyer, the Andrei Schleifer case, commingling operational and endowment funds, interest rate swaps that cost billions to escape, an abortive building spree that has left several large holes in the ground. Not to mention stating that girls are not suited for math and science, which I suppose is where he didn't do such a good job or representing Harvard. As a Hopkins guy, I can't really say I'm all that upset, but mucking up Harvard and Berkeley/UCLA/UCSF et al. offends my sensibilities, however the damage is accomplished. Anyway, why is this foolish tool still in any position of influence?

  5. Geithner is reported as saying Warren is especially well-qualified to lead it. False rumour? covering his tracks?

    I'm of the Obama is wonderful and doing all he can school.

    I don't understand why you think he can make the Senate obey your every whim.

    As far as I can see, Obama has calculated which battles he can win.

    And then has proceeded to win them.

    But isn't the real question could Warren be confirmed?

    He is about to get a second SC Justice confirmed, and you want him to incite increased obstructionist tactics in the Senate.

    You say there is no reason not to appoint Warren- I understand her positive attributes- but do you know if she has the executive skills to manage a large organization?

    I actually trust Obama's judgment- if he picks someone else, I'll assume he knew what he was doing.

  6. Dear Canuck —

    "But isn’t the real question could Warren be confirmed?"

    I don't believe so, for two reasons:

    1) Give her a recess appointment, as he did with Donald Berwick. Starting January 3, I'm leaning toward the view that virtually all executive branch appointments should be recess appointments, in order to raise the issue of GOP obstruction, although I still have to check out the legalities on that.

    2) This isn't just about the agency; it's about the midterms. Obama must do something to energize the base, or at least not depress it any more. If the GOP wants to have a fight on this, great.

  7. Watching the exchanges between Warren and Geithner during the last TARP oversight hearing signaled communication problems. Warren asked Geithner about the looming commercial property loans that are about to default to the tune of $400B. I heard the question 3 times…..never heard an answer

  8. Perhaps the problem for the "base" is the continual setting of lines in the sand over peripheral issues. I'm certain that Warren would be an appropriate pick. I'm also certain that she is not the only appropriate progressive pick. The base will only support Warren, as I understand the demand. This is a setup for perpetual disappointment. I'm beginning to believe that the base LIKES being upset; it's what they live for.

  9. Folks,

    If Warren is in trouble with Wall Street because she's trying to help the REST of the country, then she sounds perfect. Sort of like evaluating someone by the "nature of their enemies."

  10. > … stating that girls are not suited for math and science, …

    He stated no such thing. Nothing of the sort.

  11. "There is NO reason — none — not to give the job to Warren except that Wall Street doesn’t like her. "

    Seems like good enough reason to give her the job right there.

  12. Kent “Fecal Matter” Conrad

    No need to be explicitly scatological when referring to the, or almost any other, senator. His title–Senator–alone conveys the intended effect to everyone who pays close attention to politics.

    If you prefer to be more explicit, a less graphic, more tasteful construction might be "that steaming sack of senator, Kent Conrad".

  13. Hi jm —

    The reason why I used the epithet is that in a previous post, I referred to Conrad as a "piece of crap". One of our trolls has decided that this was the worst moral violation since the Rwandan genocide. My reference was just to underline my assessment of the junior senator from North Dakota. But I like yours better; I'll use it in the future.

  14. Steve, he didn't quite say that, but did say something of the sort. I defended him a while, because a few of his antagonists were opportunists whom I don't trust – but only until I saw the transcript.

  15. I too belong to the "Trust Obama, he knows what he's doing" camp. But I also agree with you, Jonathan, that this will be a good test case of that theory. There really is no good reason for Obama not to appoint Elizabeth Warren. And I think that Obama will. By all accounts she has an excellent relationship with the White House, with the exception of Larry Summers. Obama has his own views on consumer protection issues, and they appear to align more with Warren's than with Geithner's; I just can't see why Obama would defer to Geithner or Summers on this choice.

    The other reason why I think Warren will be the choice is that she is in fact confirmable. Regular people of all ideological stripes – i.e., non-Wall Street types – like her. She will present herself very well in a confirmation hearing. She is charming. She knows how to tap populism without turning demagogic. Senate Republicans would love to be able to torpedo her nomination, but I don't think they can do so without looking REALLY bad, like Wall Street stooges, and gift-wrapping a campaign issue for the Democrats. The GOP will realize this, and Warren will be confirmed.

  16. One related point: A great example of the fact that congressional Republicans don't want a public fight over consumer financial protection involves the auto dealer exemption from the new bureau's mandate.

    See Ron Lieber's New York Times column yesterday. It notes that Sam Brownback led the Republicans' fight to exempt auto dealers. Brownback is retiring and running for governor. I don't think it's a coincidence that the senator chosen to be the public face of this issue is a guy who's not running for re-election.

  17. If someone of Elizabeth Warren's stature is not confirmed, I will start to form a new political party aimed solely at impeaching President Obama for war crimes.

    I am sure that I can trade his impeachment for an end to the wars, Gitmo, DADT, and single payer medical care.

    That is a gigantic golden ace to play. It is worth almost all of Republican votes.

    Push comes to shove, a trial for treason and execution will get a lot of problems solved.

    Racist, hell yes, sell him for a real worthwhile price. I do not want Joe Biden (Democrat – Dupont Chemical Corporation) as President, but I don't think that we could get worse than Insane McCain and Caribou Barbie.

    Sell the bastard down the drain. He is not magic. He is not a leader. He should be thrown out with the trash.

    The last smooth talking, ignorant Senator that was elected to the Presidency from Illinois, started the deadliest war that has ever been fought by the United States. Why? The guy had no common sense. Pretty speeches. Not a lick of common sense.

    The British government freed all their slaves and purchased their freedom and paid off the bonds. The total deal cost less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the treasure and lives that the jackass Lincoln squandered.

  18. I think Things is a spoof, meant either as humor or incitement – but it's a sad commentary on either my mental state or our discourse, or some combination, that I fear Things might be sincere.

  19. Charles, as I recall Lincoln never proposed even the slightest reforms to slavery where it existed, not even to the Fugitive Slave Act. The war was about the viability of slavery, not emancipation.

  20. No, what Summers said was not even remotely along the lines of "girls are not suited for math and science". Not even close.

  21. Summers was talking about the relatively low number of women who reach the very highest levels of science and engineering. In proposing one possible, and self-admittedly provocative, explaination he referred to some research in behavioral genetics that suggested biological factors, implicitly the innate differences between men and women, might be a more relevant factor than how boys and girls are differently socialized.

    For my money, that's remotely close at the very least.

  22. The transcript is out there for those who care to Google it. Summers is fairly careful, but he does suggest that there may simply be far fewer highly talented women than highly talented men.

  23. When IQ scores are plotted across the bell curve of distribution, another gender difference can be identified. IQ scores for females are distributed quite evenly across the bell curve of distribution while scores for males are distributed more heavily at either end. This means that there are more males (than females) in institutions for the mentally challenged; there are also more male towering geniuses in the fields of art, literature, and music.

    I. Q. Tests

  24. Charles, even if we assume those data are gospel truth (and I really have no position on that question; I know the field of intelligence measurement is rife with controversies I have no great wish to delve into), that still leaves rather a big step from those data to their being a major contributor to the dearth of women in some fields, and even that would leave a giant leap before it would be a advisable thing for Summers to say.

    In any case, I'm not at all aware that the IQ distribution for science professors has even been measured, let alone that it mostly falls within this area of significant non-overlap that you cite.

  25. My guess is that there can be fairly general agreement that Harvard has tendencies to smugness. I read Summers' remarks some time ago, and my memory is that he was assuming that, to be a Harvard scientist, you had to be in a fairly stratospheric part of the innate talent distribution. I generally buy that idea, although any group is going to have variation around its mean. Some people have swell careers, not because they are absolutely splendid themselves, but luck has put them in intellectual areas where important stuff is being done, and Harvard will have its share of folks who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Next is the assumption that innate talent is well measured by IQ tests – if it's related (I think this is plausible, likely) then you will have a higher yield of people with output that puts them in line for the next Harvard professorship among people whose test scores are very very high.

    And if the distribution of gender in the group of people with IQ scores above, say, 4 standard deviations from the mean is 3x as many men, you will get the situation Summers talked about, and if you want an equal number of women in professorship, you will have to put your thumb on the scale. Summers also talked about women wanting families – it's hugely daunting for a woman who wants to breed to get into the academic mill race and realize that you don't emerge at the other end – successful or not – until you are 36.

    So I thought and think that what Summers said was quite reasonable, and that one of the things college presidents are supposed to do is raise things which ought to be thought about. That said, I think his interest rate stuff and the hell-for-leather building spree in Allston and the Andrei Schleifer business were terrible.

  26. If IQ is the right statistic, and if the faculty of Harvard and many other schools are 4 st devs above the mean (neither of which is known nor very plausible), then he was impolitic but not incorrect.

  27. The sad thing is that the mischaracterization of Summers' comments can't have encouraged girls and young women to choose math and science. It's ironic that those who might be most in favor of encouraging young women to consider math and science tend to be most prone to buy in to the mischaracterization of Summers' words (or so it seems to me).

    Sorry for hijacking the thread. Elizabeth Warren strikes me as an amazing woman.

  28. Steve, I agree with your comment except that it's not a mischaracterization. The message whose destructive effects you rightly fear really was in the speech.

    I apologize to anyone upset by threadjack.

  29. How is it not a mischaracterization? Where in the speech did he say that girls are not suited for math or science? He was posing provocative questions about the extreme tails of statistical distributions.

    What Dave Schutz says just above.

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