President Obama cast his recess appointment of a new consumer watchdog as fresh proof of his commitment to surmount congressional gridlock and take action meant to shore up a struggling middle class – a major theme of his 2012 reelection bid.
Obama used his 17th trip to Ohio, a key swing state in the presidential race, to formally announce that he is installing Richard Cordray as the first head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
Obama had nominated Cordray last summer, but Senate Republicans refused to confirm him for the post, preventing the agency from fulfilling parts of its mission. Obama made his appointment at a moment when the Senate is in recess, enabling him to bypass the Senate confirmation process.
Obama, speaking before 1,274 people at a high school gym on Wednesday, said that “every day that Richard waited to be confirmed … was another day when millions of Americans were left unprotected. Because without a director in place, the consumer watchdog agency that we’ve set up doesn’t have all the tools it needs to protect consumers against dishonest mortgage brokers or payday lenders and debt collectors who are taking advantage of consumers. And that’s inexcusable. It’s wrong. And I refuse to take no for an answer.’’
Obama’s message is part of a larger White House strategy to present him as what one senior aide called “a warrior for the middle class.’’ The plan envisions bypassing Congress if necessary and taking executive action that lawmakers cannot obstruct. The Cordray recess appointment is the latest example of an approach the White House dubs, “We can’t wait.’’
At the Shaker Heights appearance, the White House hung a large blue “We can’t wait’’ banner against a gym wall.
Before his speech, Obama met at the Cleveland home of an elderly couple who had been victims of the kind of scam Cordray will try to prevent. William and Endia Eason had signed up with a broker who took out loans intended for home repairs, pocketed the money and disappeared, according to the White House.
Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, will help crack down on such practices and act as a watchdog for vulnerable families like the Easons, Obama said.
“The only reason Republicans in the Senate have blocked Richard is because they don’t agree with the law that set up a consumer watchdog in the first place,’’ he said. “They want to weaken the law. They want to water it down. And by the way, a lot of folks in the financial industry have poured millions of dollars to try to water it down.”
Obama added: “We shouldn’t be weakening oversight. We shouldn’t be weakening accountability. We should be strengthening it -- especially when it comes to looking out for families like yours.
“The financial firms have armies of lobbyists in Washington looking out for their interest. You need somebody looking out for your interest and fighting for you, and that’s Richard Cordray.’’
Obama’s visit came one day after Mitt Romney’s narrow victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses. Obama did not mention the election result, but took a veiled swipe at Republicans.
“I know that you’re hearing a lot of promises from a lot of politicians lately,’’ he said. “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 sure this is a country where hard work and responsibility mean something and everybody can get ahead. Not just those at the very top, not just those who know how to work the system, but everybody.’’
While Obama avoided attacking the Republicans by name, his campaign did not worry about such niceties. In a conference call with reporters shortly before Obama’s speech, David Axelrod, a top Obama campaign strategist, opened a withering attack on Romney.
Axelrod described the former Massachusetts governor as a soulless flip-flopper focused on personal “advancement.’’
“Taking two positions on every issue, one on the left and one on the far right, doesn’t make you a centrist,’’ Axelrod said. “It makes you a charlatan.”