Harvard Prof Top Pick To Lead Consumer Bureau

Elizabeth Warren is the leading candidate to head the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. The Harvard Law School professor has an aw-shucks manner that seems to make her an unlikely candidate for a political showdown between left and right.

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Now, where consumers, banks and rap music intersect. When Congress rewrote the nation's financial rule book this summer it set up a new agency to safeguard consumers. Now, President Obama has to decide who should run that agency and he's getting a lot of advice, much of it telling him to pick Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who proposed the idea for the Consumer Protection Bureau.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

(Soundbite of music video, "Got a New Sheriff")

SCOTT HORSLEY: It's high noon for President Obama, as he makes his pick for a new financial sheriff.

Mr. RYAN ANTHONY LUMAS (Rapper, Main Street BRIGADE): Elizabeth Warren...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUMAS: We got your back.

HORSLEY: Liberal groups are collecting signatures, a dozen senators have written the president, there's even a YouTube music video - all singing the praises of Elizabeth Warren.

(Soundbite of music video, "Got a New Sheriff")

MAIN STREET BRIGADE (Rappers): (Rapping) Elizabeth. Got, got, got a new sheriff. Warren. Got, got, got a new sheriff. Elizabeth. Got, got, got a new sheriff, Warren. Elizabeth Warren.

Ms. JULIA ROSEN (Online Political Director, Progressive Change Campaign Committee): I dont know about you, but I can't remember a time when a position that needs to be confirmed by the Senate had a rap video in support of an individual.

HORSLEY: Julia Rosen's group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, has collected more than 200,000 petition signatures for Warren, who also serves as a watchdog for the government's bank bailout program.

The plainspoken Harvard law professor has become a folk hero for bank customers. And Rosen says it'll be disappointing if Mr. Obama picks anyone else.

Ms. ROSEN: Elizabeth Warren has a proven record of standing up to Wall Street on behalf of the consumers. And the public is telling President Obama that she's absolutely the best person for the job.

HORSLEY: Warren's pioneering research into the causes of bankruptcy, and the financial traps that ordinary Americans fall into, made her a crusader for consumer protection. But it didnt make her any friends in the banking industry.

George Beattie, who heads the Nebraska Bankers Association, says Warren would not be a popular pick among bankers.

Mr. GEORGE BEATTIE (President-CEO, Nebraska Bankers Association): I really dont think she would be a good fit. It's not that I doubt her intelligence, but I dont think she has practical experience necessary to run a consumer protection agency.

HORSLEY: Beattie remembers a conference call in which Warren tried to persuade rural bankers that a standardized loan contract designed to protect consumers would also be good for banks. He came away doubtful that the professor understands his business, and he shared that worry with the senators who would have to vote on her nomination.

Mr. BEATTIE: Regardless of what you think of her, she has become sort of a lightning rod and has picked up a lot of baggage as a result of that.

HORSLEY: Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd also worries about Warren's political baggage. In a call to the "Diane Rehm Show," Dodd argued there are other qualified candidates. So why pick a fight in the Senate over Warren?

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Chairman, Senate Banking Committee): People could be great nominees, and Elizabeth likely be a terrific nominee. The question is: Is she confirmable? And there's a serious question about it.

HORSLEY: Warren has also tangled at times with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had only nice things to say about Warren, noting that she and the president met to discuss the consumer job shortly before Mr. Obama left on his summer vacation.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): Elizabeth Warren is a terrific candidate. I dont think any criticism in any way would disqualify her. And I think she's very confirmable for this job.

HORSLEY: Warren would need at least some Republican support to win confirmation and thats a challenge, since most Senate Republicans voted against the consumer agency. Still, financial reform is one area where Mr. Obama has been eager to challenge Republicans, evidently believing the public is on his side.

Petition gatherer Rosen adds picking Warren is an opportunity for Obama to re-energize some of his disillusioned supporters on the left.

Ms. ROSEN: A fight on behalf of consumers and making sure we have an advocate at the helm is a good thing to do, and a fight well worth having.

HORSLEY: The president's choice could be a signal then, not only of how tough the new Consumer Protection Bureau will be, but also how combative Mr. Obama will be heading into the November election.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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Correction Aug. 26, 2010

Earlier versions of this story identified Elizabeth Warren as a former dean of the Harvard Law School. This is incorrect. She is a professor.

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