Ahhh. Another day, another fresh issue for left- and right-wingers to yell and scream and assault each others’ characters over, or in the parlance of traditional news outlets: “[Insert political entity] divided on [Insert key issue].” Today’s tantalizingly (as always) reads, “Capitol Hill divided on Obama plan to bypass approval for Elizabeth Warren.” Now, if you haven’t heard of this particular lawyer/bureaucrat, you can be forgiven. She’s formerly a Harvard law professor, and currently sits on the board of five in charge of monitoring the successful repayment of TARP funds by the bailed-out banks. She’s not quite a national figure. But she should be.
Full disclosure: I am in love with Elizabeth Warren. Maybe it’s the quasi-folksy charm, maybe it’s the long and illustrious tenure at Harvard, maybe it’s her fiery rhetoric in defense of the American consumer, or maybe I’ve just got a thing for glasses, but whatever it is, it’s potent.
Anyway, the issue at hand is the brand-spanking new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the much-ballyhooed financial reform bill enacted into law a few months ago. Its job is defined quite nebulously – “regulating consumer financial products and services in compliance with federal law,” to be exact – which means that its actual power and scope will be defined over the course of the next few years by the White House, Congress, and most importantly the CFPB’s inaugural director and his or her willingness to push its powers to their limits. As the CFPB was an institution Ms. Warren had been vocal about creating long before the 2008 financial crisis, many (left-wing) people would love to see her be first to hold the five-year-long position. Others (right-wing), however, fear that she’s a bit too much a full-throated bank-hater to properly run the agency.
Personally, I believe both sides have a point. I wouldn’t complain if she were the first director, but I can’t fault Obama for likely not choosing her to be, as the director’s role requires Senate confirmation and Ms. Warren is quite a polarizing figure among those in the know. Instead, Warren is being taken on as an assistant to the President and special advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury, with a focus on leading the initial planning and structuring of the CFPB. Cue the outrage, please. Leader of a left-leaning advocacy group, described in the New York Times as ‘disappointed’: “Warren is confirmable, and a fight over her confirmation is worth having.” US Chamber of Commerce, notorious Warren-haters: “This maneuver is an affront to the pledge of transparency and consumer protection that’s purported to be the focus of this new agency.” The left is saying the White House didn’t do enough, the right is saying they’ve gone too far. Sound familiar?
Let’s be clear: What the White House has chosen to do in this instance is consistent with what they’ve done on nearly every contentious issue faced: taken the middle ground. Yes, that’s right all you hard-liners, I’m saying it: Barack Obama is a centrist. And the fact that so few see him that way demonstrates a fundamental problem with politics. Too many people in this country only listen to their idealogical clones, and tune out the rest to the point where their perceptions about the economy, foreign policy etc. begin to seem like gospel truth to them. So when, say, a right-winger hears that Obama is forcing through an $800 billion + stimulus package, they perceive that as far outside (read: to the left) of their experience of the debate, which makes him appear to be far-left. But if that person spent some time reading a few Paul Krugman columns here and there, they’d be a little more clear on what the scope of the debate was. At the height of the crisis numbers significantly higher than $1 trillion were being floated as serious possibilities. So, in search of bipartisanship, Obama went with a quite middle-of-the-road stimulus package.
Fast forward to the healthcare debate. When the public option was dropped from the final bill, a good chunk of left-wingers felt utterly betrayed by the White House for not threatening to veto unless the option was in the bill sent to him. But perhaps if they’d turned off MSNBC’s inane polemics about which healthcare firms were donating to which anti reform groups for a bit, they’d start to see that opposition to it was far less based on “death panel” rumors, and much more based on people’s concern that having the government run its own healthcare plan would send that whole sector of our economy into conniptions during a crisis, and on the widely-held idealogical belief that government is inherently bad at effective management.
Right now, Obama is generally viewed as a left to far-left politician, but that’s a product of the Tea Party’s vocality and its steady integration with mainstream Republicanism. But if the Democrats were under siege by their own fringe, we’d be hearing about how Guantanamo Bay is still open, how Obama ordered a troop increase in Afghanistan, and how he’s normalizing relations with China while it practices active repression in Tibet. The truth of the matter is that centrists are both the most important and most reviled members of our political system. Without them, we would be at a never-ending governmental impasse. Obama’s no devil, and he’s no saint either. He’s a center-left president, doing his best to take the middle path at a time when neither side knows what the hell is going on.