Did Obama just fumble a Warren touchdown?

The president gives the Harvard lawyer a job. Kind of. Can you hear the sound of no champagne corks popping?

By Andrew Leonard

Published September 15, 2010 10:20PM (EDT)

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren

So what in the world does this mean? ABC News' Jake Tapper has the Elizabeth Warren scoop of the year.

President Obama will announce this week that Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor who first proposed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will be named to a special position reporting to both him and to the Treasury Department and tasked with heading the effort to get the new federal agency standing, a knowledgeable Democrat told ABC News...

Naming Warren as an assistant or counselor to both the president and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner would allow the president to bypass a Senate confirmation process that could prove lengthy and contentious.

At first glance, the news seems sure to disappoint progressives who want Warren named as the first director of the CFPB, and are spoiling for a fight with the opposition over what would surely be a contested confirmation. Indeed, if Obama was looking for a way to define exactly what's wrong with his presidency, he may have done it with this back-door, not-quite-an-appointment. Neither Obama's supporters nor opponents will be satisfied with this move -- just as neither were happy with the healthcare bill or bank reform. It feels weak.

If Obama was hoping to spur enthusiasm among the Democratic base that would get voters to the polls, this is not the way to do it. Instead of inspiring cheers, this news is sure to hit with a dull thud.

On the other hand, if "heading the effort" means that Warren is actually entrusted with real authority to "get the new federal agency standing" -- including the ability to pick staff, set an agenda, and start actively going about the business of protecting consumers -- then isn't that actually what Warren supporters want? A long drawn-out confirmation fight with no guarantee of success results in no immediate progress. At least now, Warren can get to work. Could this possibly be a version of the Warren loophole discussed earlier this week, in which, under the Dodd-Frank bill, the Treasury has the power to appoint an interim director of the CFPB without Senate confirmation?

Or does "advisory" mean, essentially: no real power. In that case, Obama has blown one of his few opportunities to create any real enthusiasm among Democrats in the run-up to the midterm elections.

We look forward to learning more. At this juncture, we just don't know enough to fully evaluate the news. But it's hard to see any Warren supporters overflowing with glee on the basis of what we know now.

UPDATE: Hmm. Arriana Huffington tweets that Obama has "nominated" Warren for the job, and then links to a Shahien Nasripour article that interprets the news much more warmly than my own initial impression.

The move allows her to act as an interim head of the CFPB and will enable her to begin setting up the agency immediately and prevent the GOP from filibustering her nomination. Warren could serve until Obama nominates a permanent director -- a nomination he's not required to make for some time. Obama could also nominate her as the permanent director in the near future, a prospect that has been discussed among top aides, according to a person familiar with the White House deliberations.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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