WASHINGTON — It's strange to remember, but financial services policy used to be so low down on the totem poll of political importance that it was big news when a President even mentioned the words "Fannie Mae" in a speech.
The financial crisis changed all that, but sometimes I think the banking lobby doesn't know that.
Since the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau launched last year, many lobbyists and analysts I talk to have suggested that the agency will never really register on voters' radar. The average citizen, according to them, will care far more about bigger issues, like the economy, or social issues, like gay marriage.
But when it comes to the CFPB, the industry is dead wrong. President Obama has clearly taken steps to put the CFPB center stage in his battle to stay in the White House.
He's right to do so. Just from talking to my friends, whose interest in banking issues ranges from zero to outright hostility, the CFPB has been gaining popular attention.
If Obama continues to raise the agency's profile — and all signs indicate he will — the effort could significantly boost his campaign among Democrats, independents and, yes, even some swing Republicans.
1) It's a potent, easy-to-understand symbol
Most Americans probably won't be thinking about the CFPB fight on Election Day, but it is likely to color their impression of the two presidential candidates, particularly Obama. The CFPB represents a concrete accomplishment of his first term and it helps solidify the notion that he is sticking up for consumers versus Wall Street. Republicans want to paint the CFPB as another "bureaucratic solution," hoping to gin up some Tea Party-fervor against the agency, but I don't think that flies. What limited polls have been conducted show that Americans of all political ideologies generally support an agency dedicated to protecting them from unscrupulous banks, lenders and check cashers.
2) It plays well against Mitt Romney
Assuming Romney is the Republican presidential candidate, it's pretty clear the Obama campaign will seek to portray him as a corporate vulture who cares more about businesses than people. The fact that Romney is on record calling for a repeal of the CFPB along with the rest of Dodd-Frank makes him vulnerable.
"The White House is imagining this issue in the context of Mitt Romney as GOP nominee," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Right now the non-Romney GOP candidates are helping President Obama by focusing so heavily on Bain Capital, defining Romney as a rich corporate raider who swooped in for the money kill and cost loads of average people their jobs. Contrast that with Obama, who is 'fighting for the average man and woman in the never-ending battle against banks and Wall Street to avoid getting screwed.'Simplistic? You bet. Will it sell with lots of voters? Undoubtedly."
3) Obama gains from every CFPB victory
The president made the CFPB front-page news with his recess appointment of Richard Cordray as its director. Since then he has continued to mention it in speeches, his weekly radio address and at fundraisers. And it's only been one week. Imagine what he'll do when the CFPB announces an enforcement action against a big bank or nonbank.
And make no mistake, those actions are already on their way, with Cordray saying last week there were several in the pipeline. Each action will fuel a spate of headlines about how the government, in this case the CFPB, is fighting back against banks. Cordray will get credit, but since Obama created the agency, there's little doubt he will receive significant political benefits as well. Obama clearly thinks so. In his address to CFPB employees last week — which seemed like more of a campaign rally than anything else — Obama repeatedly used the word "we" when referring to the agency's work. "We can help give everyone the clear and transparent information that they need to make informed financial decisions, and have companies compete for their business in an open and honest way," Obama said.
For every notch in CFPB's belt, Obama also receives a boost and reinforces to the American public how he is keeping them safe. To me, that assures the CFPB will be a prominent issue in the presidential campaign.
What do you think? Do you think voters will care about the CFPB?