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Warren's appointment: The pitfalls of compromise

Before he decided he was for it, he was against it. On the news that President Obama will name Elizabeth Warren to be "Assistant to the President & Special Adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau," progressive blogger Matt Yglesias tweeted, tongue planted firmly in cheek, that Obama was "showing real innovation in developing odd, satisfying to nobody compromises."

Yglesias later followed up with a blog post saying he now believes Obama's decision is "a good idea." That may be true, but his initial instinct was right. By naming Warren to this mouthful of a title, Obama may be trying to make a compromise. And as is the case in many tough calls made in particularly divisive contexts, it's sure to leave just as many people dissatisfied as happy.

A little background, for those who haven't been following political appointment news with the same religious zeal as the blogosphere. Warren, a Harvard professor who first proposed the idea for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) three years ago, is a polarizing figure, beloved by the left, who've made her nomination a cause celebre, and viewed with suspicion, as the Post reported today, by both bankers and Congress members on the right.

Had Obama nominated her to direct the new CFPB outright, she surely would have faced a difficult confirmation--many nominees far less divisive than Warren have gotten stuck in the process. Had he gone with someone more palatable to the right in hopes of getting someone in this important role as soon as possible, he would have made even more enemies within his own party, and, presumably, gone against his own principles for who he believes is the best person for the job.

And so, Obama landed on a compromise--something leaders have to do every day. Except that in Obama's world (where voter dissatisfaction, a radically polarized political spectrum and a news media hungry to turn everything into a controversy), compromises don't have the usual effect. Rather than make everyone at least a little bit happy, they have the reverse result of satisfying very few. Those on the left will argue Warren will be hamstrung by Treasury Secretary Geithner and that Obama backed down from his conservative opponents; those on the right will see this as nothing more than expanding the bureaucracy of the administration as the president appoints yet another "czar" they see as a threat.

Leaders who operate in such virulent environments have few choices, and have to make decisions by keeping their eye on the prize. In this case, Obama assumedly wanted Warren in the job and likely reasoned that it was more important for her to get started on launching the CFPB rather than leave such an important job unfilled for what could have been months on end. Such a compromise may very well be satisfying to nobody. But if it helps Obama advance his goals when the system is broken, indeed, it may also be a good idea.

By Jena McGregor

 |  September 16, 2010; 11:56 AM ET |  Category:  Change management , Decision-making , Federal government leadership , Government leadership , Presidential leadership , Women in leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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