It’s a new year, and there’s a new, more aggressive Barack Obama in the White House.
Last year’s theme in Washington was straightforward: The president proposes and the Senate disposes. Whether legislation to create jobs, grand budget bargains to cut spending and raise taxes, or nominations for officials to do the work of government, Republican senators ensured that passing any important (and many unimportant) issues required a super-majority they would in turn deny.
Now, after years of urging from his progressive critics, the White House is fighting back, appointing four officials to important economic jobs over the obstruction of Republican senators. The recess appointments, made while Congress is technically on vacation, are to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and serve on the National Labor Relations Board, both of which Senate Republicans oppose. The appointments are designed to highlight the kinds of economic issues—financial predation and corporate overreach—that have resonated with Occupy Wall Street and people across the country, teeing off Obama’s 2012 campaign with a populist economic message.
Senate Republicans have little substantive criticism of the nominees themselves. Instead, they have struck the unique position that if they disagree with a law but cannot scrape up the votes to repeal it, they will prevent anyone from working at the agencies that enforce them, a modern twist on 19th century’s “nullification” debates.
The agencies in question are in charge of giving regular people equal footing with corporate behemoths and are frequent targets of GOP wrath. The CFPB regulates the kinds of financial products that have been giving us all economic agita for years now—home mortgage loans, credit card deals, student loans—by ensuring that banks are transparent about the costs and benefits of anything they sell you. The NLRB is in charge of settling disputes between workers and employers, but has been paralyzed because it did not have enough commissioners to officially make decisions.
By highlighting these two agencies, the White House hopes to demonstrate to impatient supporters that it is tough enough to stand up to Republican obstruction, and to start underlining its campaign narrative in a reelection year: When Republicans stood up for big corporations and banks, Obama took action to help protect the little guy.
Republicans were typically apoplectic by what they call a power grab, and have already promised to block all of Obama’s future nominees over the slight—though this Congress has already set records for the fewest personnel confirmations, so it will be hard to tell the difference. There will likely be court battles following the president’s decision, which relies on legal hairsplitting to evade equally mind-numbing procedural trickery in Congress, but is nonetheless likely to be upheld.
Still, maybe the biggest sign of shifting political sands is that Massachusetts’ Republican Senator, Scott Brown flouted the party line and endorsed Obama’s decision. Brown is being challenged in next year’s election by Elizabeth Warren, the law professor and reformer who helped create the CFPB, and he clearly sees Warren and Obama on the winning side of the issue.
But Brown’s race is in Massachusetts. For him to succeed in 2012, Obama will need his message that the government can help redress economic wrongs—and that Republicans seek to prevent it from doing so—to resonate around the country. Obama’s sudden discovery of the courage of his convictions should help drive the point home.
Photo courtesy of the White House