Obama Ratchets Up Campaign Against Congress

President Obama's campaign against Congress ratcheted up Wednesday. Obama took advantage of a congressional recess to name Richard Cordray the new director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The move infuriated Republicans.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And while Republicans sort out their nomination, President Obama is busy campaigning against what he calls a do-nothing Congress. On a trip to Cleveland today, Mr. Obama announced that he is installing a director of a new financial watchdog agency, that despite strong opposition from Senate Republicans. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the move underscores the president's campaign strategy of painting himself as a defender of the middle class.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama made the announcement in Ohio - sure to be a battleground in next November's election. He visited with an elderly Cleveland couple: William and Endia Eason. Sitting at their dining-room table, Mr. Obama heard how the Easons were taken advantage of by an unscrupulous mortgage broker. They wound up $80,000 in debt and very nearly lost their modest home.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They earned the right to retire with dignity and with respect, and they shouldn't have to worry about being tricked by somebody who's out to make a quick buck.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says that's exactly the reason he pressed successfully for the new financial watchdog agency. But in order to exercise many of its powers, that agency needs a director. So Mr. Obama has tapped former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as America's consumer watchdog.

OBAMA: And that means he is going to be in charge of one thing: looking out for the best interests of American consumers - looking out for you.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama originally nominated Cordray last summer, but Senate Republicans have blocked his confirmation for months. Their objection is not with Cordray, a well-respected consumer advocate and five-time "Jeopardy" champion, but they don't like the way the agency was set up, and they promised not to confirm anyone as director until changes are made. Mr. Obama complains lawmakers are simply trying to water down the new consumer protections.

OBAMA: That makes no sense. Does anybody think that the reason that we got in such a financial mess, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in a generation, that the reason was because of too much oversight of the financial industry?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No.

OBAMA: Of course not.

HORSLEY: Ordinarily, a president might use a recess appointment to get around this kind of legislative roadblock. Senators tried to prevent that with a series of pro forma sessions throughout the holidays. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, despite those sessions, the Senate has effectively been in recess for weeks now, and that cleared the way for the Cordray appointment.

. JAY CARNEY: Where pro forma sessions are used, as the Senate has done and plans to continue to do, simply as an attempt to prevent the president from exercising his constitutional authority, such pro forma sessions do not interrupt the recess.

HORSLEY: This unusually in-your-face move by the president won praise from consumer groups and predictable outrage from Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it fundamentally endangers the Congress's role in providing a check on the excesses of the executive branch. Mr. Obama insists he still wants to work with Congress whenever possible, for example, to extend the payroll tax cut for a full year. But the president also vowed to go around Congress when necessary.

OBAMA: I've got an obligation to act on behalf of the American people, and I'm not going to stand by while a minority in the Senate puts party ideology ahead of the people that we were elected to serve. Now with so much at stake, not at this make-or-break moment for middle-class Americans, we're not going to let that happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: In adopting this go-it-alone re-election strategy, Mr. Obama risks poisoning whatever chance there was on Capitol Hill for cooperation this year, but that was a slim chance at best. Crucially, Republicans no longer enjoy the kind of leverage they did during last summer's debt ceiling debate. Mr. Obama says one of his New Year's resolutions is to spend more time talking to people in places like Ohio, even if that means less time talking to lawmakers in Washington. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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