Elizabeth Warren Choice a Test For Obama

Elizabeth Warren, chair of the TARP Congressional Oversight Panel, appears on CBS' "The Early Show," October 22, 2009.
Elizabeth Warren on CBS' "The Early Show," October 22, 2009.

The big question among close watchers of Wall Street reform is whether or not President Obama will tap Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren to head the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, which was established to look out for consumer interests in the financial markets as part of the financial reform bill.

The president was asked on ABC this morning if he would choose Warren, who came up with the idea for the agency, to be its leader. He replied that Warren is "a wonderful voice making a very simple point, which is, if you've got a set of rules and standards in place to make sure your toaster doesn't blow up in your face, you should have some rules and regulations to make sure your credit card or mortgage doesn't blow up in your face."

He notably declined, however, to say whether he would choose her, stating only that she will have some role "to help in thinking about how do we make this consumer agency as effective as possible looking out for consumers."

The pick to lead the new bureau is an important one for Mr. Obama. Warren is a hated figure among executives at big banks, and choosing her would anger a Wall Street and business establishment that has already somewhat soured on the president. (Even if the financial reform bill ended up being weaker than they feared.) Choosing the relatively undiplomatic former head of the congressional bank bailout oversight panel would also lead to a confirmation fight, with Senate Republicans signaling that they would strongly oppose the selection.

"Elizabeth, I think, can be a terrific nominee. The question is, 'Is she confirmable?'" Sen. Chris Dodd told National Public Radio. "And I think there's a serious question about it."

But unions and consumer groups are strong backers of Warren, who they see as one of the few people who has consistently fought for consumer financial protection. Rep. Barney Frank, the liberal lawmaker who played a major role in crafting the financial reform bill, put pressure on the president to choose Warren in an interview with MSNBC.

"...with regard to appointing Elizabeth Warren, that's his decision,' Frank said. "No one can stop him from making it. And I hope he will appoint her."

Someone who might be trying to stop the president from making that choice is Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who has reportedly expressed opposition to choosing Warren, with whom he has clashed in the past. As head of the congressional oversight panel overseeing the bank bailouts, Warren often had harsh words for Geithner's Treasury Department.

Now all eyes are on whether Mr. Obama will tap Warren or a candidate less likely to generate a fight, both privately and publicly. Both the left and the right are closely watching the pick as a sign of the president's priorities. For the left, it's a test of whether he is willing to stick his neck out to fight for them and take on Wall Street. For the right, it's a question of what the pick reveals about his attitude toward business and banks.

Opinion: The Case For - and Against - Elizabeth Warren