In his first public appearance in the election year, President Obama announced the appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and directed a not-so-subtle "game on" call at congressional Republicans. Obama spoke at Shaker Heights High School in a suburb of Cleveland where he used the appointment of Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, to underscore his support for the middle class and hammer home his campaign theme against the GOP leadership in Congress.
Obama nominated Cordray to become the CFPB's first director in July, but Senate Republicans have blocked his confirmation. The dispute is not over Cordray's ability to lead the bureau but hinges on the GOP's objections to how the agency is structured. Obama was quick to point out the distinction.
“The only reason Republicans in the Senate have blocked Richard is because they don’t agree with the law setting up the consumer watchdog,” Obama said. “They want to weaken it. Well that makes no sense at all. Does anyone think the reason we got in such a financial mess was because of too much oversight? Of course not.”
Senate Republicans are framing Cordray’s appointment as an overstep of presidential power. “Although the Senate is not in recess, President Obama, in an unprecedented move, has arrogantly circumvented the American people by 'recess' appointing Richard Cordray as director of the new CFPB,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement.
McConnell accused Obama of breaking a longstanding tradition where presidents only made such appointments if Congress had been in recess for longer than 10 days. But the White House calls the current “pro forma” session—where only a few members of Congress return for inconsequential business—a sham. President George W. Bush was crippled by the same maneuvering in the last two years of his presidency, but he did not make similar recess appointments.
Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University and a former teacher of Obama, argued that Bush’s decision not to use the recess-appointment power during pro-forma sessions should not be seen as a precedent that Obama must follow.
“The fact that [pro-forma sessions] are a sham cannot be eliminated by whatever the reluctance there may have been for President Bush to exercise whatever power he might have had,” said Tribe. Bush may have hesitated to make such appointments for political reasons, not because it was beyond his power or will, Tribe added.
The White House is prepared to fight over Cordray’s appointment. Senior administration officials told the Associated Press they expect blowback from Congress and a possible battle in court. But the fight could be a political plus for Democrats, if Obama is perceived as being on the side of consumers and congressional Republicans are seen as protecting big business.
“Know before you owe. You don’t want to owe and then know,” Obama told the crowd in Ohio, breaking down the mission of the watchdog agency into simple terms.
Rallying the Democratic base in Ohio is imperative to Obama’s campaign for reelection. Jerry Austin, a veteran Democratic strategist based in Cleveland, said any effect Obama has on Congress will be a “byproduct” of the speech. And Obama concluded accordingly.
“I know you’re hearing a lot of promises from a lot of politicians lately. Today, you’re only going to hear one from me. As long as I have the privilege of serving as your president, I promise to do everything I can, every day, every minute, every second, to make this country a place where hard work and responsibility mean something,” Obama said.
The president—now the candidate—left the stage under a banner reading “We Can’t Wait,” a slogan that will surely figure into his bid for reelection.