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Progressive Icon Could Head Wall Street Cleanup

Monday, 30 August 2010 10:40 AM

Elizabeth Warren is folksy and plain-spoken and favors cardigans over Washington power suits. Many on Wall Street view her as their worst nightmare but she is a hero to liberal activists and consumer groups.

This autumn, Warren, a contender to become the top U.S. consumer financial regulator, could become a focal point in a political debate over how far government should go to rein in the financial sector and other corporate interests.

As President Barack Obama wraps up a vacation on Martha's Vineyard on Sunday, a key decision awaits him on the leadership of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

White House officials say Warren, a Harvard law professor and consumer rights advocate, is a strong candidate, although other people also are under consideration.

The decision may boil down to whether Obama is willing to take on a fight for her Senate confirmation in the heat of a battle to help his Democrats avoid losses to Republicans in the Nov. 2 congressional elections.

Obama aides say there is no decision yet but many analysts say that from a purely political standpoint, Obama might have the most to gain by picking Warren.

"She is a symbol for the progressive wing of the party about the seriousness of the Obama administration's commitment to consumer protection," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. "If they put her up and (Senate Republican leader) Mitch McConnell manages to block the nomination, that's still good in terms of how the Obama administration stands in the eyes of the left wing of the Democratic Party."

Former Bush administration official Tony Fratto also predicted Obama would choose Warren.

Many liberal Democrats, frustrated with what they see as an overly moderate bent to Obama's economic team, view Warren as the one and only candidate. "I don't think this White House has the courage to buck that," Fratto said.

On Wall Street, "there is very strong dislike of her and what she might do," said Bert Ely, a banking consultant in Alexandria, Virginia.

Obama also is considering Michael Barr, a Treasury official, and Eugene Kimmelman, a longtime consumer advocate.


Baker said that passing over Warren would be like telling Orville Wright, one of the inventors of the airplane, that he could not sit in the pilot's seat.

It was Warren who conceived of the idea of the consumer agency. Its creation was mandated by Congress in the massive rewrite of U.S. financial regulations enacted in July.

Warren, 61, has spent decades championing the rights of middle-class families and detailed their struggles in a best-selling book called "The Two-Income Trap."

She is a janitor's daughter from Oklahoma whose parents lived through the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Her father was a victim of a business partner who took off with money he had saved to start a car dealership.

"I don't think she's ever looked at folks who are struggling financially as lab subjects under a microscope. She's always viewed them as people just like the people she grew up with," said her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, who co-authored "The Two-Income Trap" with Warren.

Warren believes the economic system is "rigged more and more unfairly" against the middle class, Tyagi said, adding that keeps her mother up at night. "It drives her nuts."

Wall Street fears Warren would use her platform at the consumer agency to push for policies that would hurt profits on products like credit cards and stifle their competitiveness.

Warren, who wears her blond hair tucked primly behind her ears, can disarm critics with her politeness and Midwestern twang. But she is tough. At 16, she entered college on a debate scholarship. A bankruptcy expert, she has mastered the arcane jargon of the financial world.

Raj Date, head of the Cambridge Winter Center financial research organization, said the "hand-waving and venom" about her on Wall Street was overblown. He praised her for an ability to ask the right questions about complex issues.

"She doesn't mind asking questions that other people are embarrassed to ask and as a result, she quite frequently gets to the core of substantive issues," Date said.

Warren has a rapport with top White House aides David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. She meets for lunch or dinner occasionally with senior White House economic adviser Larry Summers, an ex-president of Harvard who knows her as a colleague. Over dinner with him in April 2009, she made the case for the consumer agency and helped get him on board.

Warren has had tense moments with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in the separate role she has held since late 2008 as head of a panel overseeing the $700 billion financial bailout. In hearings about the bailout, she has grilled him about how the money was spent and whether Treasury was doing enough to spur small-business lending.

But Geithner has lavished praise on her in public recently and has said she is well-qualified to run the consumer agency.

Senate Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd has said it could be a tough sell to get Warren confirmed in the Senate where Republicans might try to block her with a filibuster.

Wall Street's dislike of Warren energizes her supporters.

The National Organization for Women has suggested that if she is not picked, it will be partly because she is not a member of the Wall Street "old boys' club." One consumer group, the Main Street Brigade, has made a rap video about Warren, lauding her as a sheriff of Wall Street.

If Obama does choose Warren, Republicans would not shrink from a fight either. Fratto said they would portray her views on the shape of the financial industry as "radical fringe."

"She's far to the left of the economic team in the Obama administration," Fratto said. He said Republicans would also emphasize her academic background and her "complete lack of experience running a large organization."

© 2018 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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Elizabeth Warren is folksy and plain-spoken and favors cardigans over Washington power suits. Many on Wall Street view her as their worst nightmare but she is a hero to liberal activists and consumer groups. This autumn, Warren, a contender to become the top U.S. consumer...
Monday, 30 August 2010 10:40 AM
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