Obama: Recess Appointment Was An 'Obligation'

President Obama campaigned outside Cleveland, Ohio, Wednesday, where he announced the appointment of a new consumer watchdog. The president used a recess appointment to install Richard Cordray. That might have been routine, but the Senate is not officially in recess.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

President Obama did some campaigning of his own yesterday in Ohio. That's a big state in the November election. At Shaker Heights High School, just outside Cleveland, Mr. Obama announced the appointment of a new consumer watchdog to keep an eye on the financial industry.

The move puts the president on a collision course with Senate Republicans, and it's a battle he seems ready to fight, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama's pick to head the new financial watchdog agency is no stranger to Ohio. Richard Cordray is a former attorney general in that state, where he earned a reputation for aggressively protecting homeowners and investors in battles with big financial companies. Mr. Obama wants Cordray to play a similar role as director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The financial firms have armies of lobbyists in Washington looking out for their interests. You need somebody looking out for your interests and fighting for you, and that's Richard Cordray.

HORSLEY: Senate Republicans have been stonewalling Cordray's nomination for months to protest the structure of the new agency. So Mr. Obama used a recess appointment to stall him in the post. That would have been routine, except the Senate is not officially in recess. All through the Christmas and New Year's holidays, senators have been holding pro forma sessions, where no actual business is conducted, for the express purpose of preventing a recess appointment. Democrats did the same thing late in the George W. Bush administration. White House spokesman Jay Carney says by yesterday the president and his lawyers had had enough of these parliamentary tricks.

JAY CARNEY: The president's council has determined that the Senate has been in recess for weeks and will be in recess for weeks. The Constitution guarantees the president the right to make appointments during Senate recesses, and the president will use that authority to make this appointment.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama also made three recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board yesterday, though without the fanfare of the Cordray appointment. Whatever the legal merits, the administration seems perfectly willing to make its case in the court of public opinion. After all, it puts the president on the side of consumers, while aligning Republicans with widely despised financial institutions. And it fits with Mr. Obama's larger reelection narrative, in which he's a champion for the middle-class pitted against a do-nothing Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: When Congress refuses to act, and as a result hurts our economy and puts our people at risk, then I have an obligation as president to do what I can without them.

HORSLEY: The president's move was promptly attacked by Republicans in the Senate and on the White House campaign trail. Mitch McConnell called it a threat to checks and balances, while Mitt Romney described it as Chicago-style politics at its worst. Mr. Obama's appointment of Cordray got a warmer reception from Elona White, who was in the audience outside Cleveland.

ELONA WHITE: We need somebody to watch over the consumers' dollars. You have to look out for everybody. You just can't look out for the rich. It's a lot of everyday, working people that need the president to look out for them, and that's what he's trying to do.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama underscored that point by dropping by the Cleveland home of William and Endia Eason. The elderly couple was approached 10 years ago by a mortgage broker offering to help finance needed home repairs. The repairs were never done, the broker disappeared and the Easons wound up with $80,000 in debt that almost cost them their home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: It's a good example of the kinds of trickery and abuse in the non-bank financial section that we're going to have to do something about.

HORSLEY: Mortgage brokers that aren't connected to banks have been largely unregulated until now. Mr. Obama hopes protecting consumers like the Easons will also safeguard the broader economy and just maybe boost his own chances for reelection. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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