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Obama tells consumer bureau to ensure Americans get a fair shake

January 06, 2012|By Jim Puzzanghera | Reporting from Washington
  • President Obama shakes hands with Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, during a visit to the agency Friday.
President Obama shakes hands with Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer… (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty…)

President Obama told employees of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that their job was to make sure that Americans get a "fair shake" from banks and other lenders.

"They're not looking for a handout. They're not looking for special treatment," Obama said Friday of the feedback he gets from people in letters and on his travels. "They just want a fair shake. They just want a fair deal. And we have a chance to give it to them."

Obama made the comments in what amounted to part victory lap, part pep talk for the agency that was a cornerstone of the financial reform law enacted in 2010. 

"Every one of you here has a critical role to play in making sure that everybody plays by the same rules: to make sure that the big banks on Wall Street play by the same rules as community banks on Main Street," Obama said, flanked by top officials at the agency.

"That's your mission," he continued, "to make sure that the American people have somebody in their corner, that American consumers have somebody who's got their back."

About 100 staffers were selected by lottery from the agency’s 800 employees to attend Obama's 10-minute speech. They crowded into the small amphitheater at the CFPB’s new offices, which the agency inherited from the shuttered Office of Thrift Supervision last year.

The White House wants to continue to highlight the controversial recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the agency, which administration officials say show the president’s commitment to protecting consumers and overcoming Republican opposition in Congress.

Republicans and business leaders criticized the appointment as a violation of Obama’s constitutional powers and legal challenges are expected.

Cordray flew with Obama on Air Force One to Cleveland on Wednesday for the announcement of his appointment. On Thursday, Cordray gave a speech at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution think tank and interviews to CNN and NPR.

On Friday, Obama made the short trip to the CFPB's offices, which are across the street from the White House complex, to tout its expanded role in the financial services marketplace.

Cordray said this was an important week for the agency and the country. With his installation as director, the consumer bureau received its full authority to police payday lenders, mortgage brokers and other financial firms outside the conventional banking system.

"Consumer financial products and services can help each of us achieve our dreams, but when risks are not clear and fees are hidden, they can make our lives much harder," Cordray said before introducing Obama.

Obama was greeted by rousing applause from agency workers, and lingered after his speech to shake hands. He praised Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, as someone"tailor-made" to lead the agency.

And Obama gave "a special shout-out" to Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor who conceived of the agency and worked for a year as an administration adviser to set it up.

Strong Republican opposition to Warren led Obama to bypass her as his nominee to be the agency's first director. She is now running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. Cordray was nominated in July, but nearly all Senate Republicans vowed to block his confirmation unless Obama agreed to changes to weaken the authority of the agency and its director.

Obama refused and on Wednesday broke with two decades of tradition and appointed Cordray during a short Senate recess. Obama said the appointment was an important milestone for consumers because it fully empowers the agency.

"Now that he's here, irresponsible debt collectors and payday lenders and independent mortgage servicers and loan providers -- they're all bound by the same rules as everybody else," Obama said. "No longer are consumers left alone to face the risk of unfair or deceptive or abusive practices. Not anymore."

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