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Obama tells consumer bureau to ensure Americans get ‘fair shake’

By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times –

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday 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 about 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 2010 financial reform law that has continued to be criticized intensely by Republicans and Wall Street.

“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 said, “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 bureau’s new offices, inherited last year from the shuttered Office of Thrift Supervision.

The White House is trying to keep the spotlight on the controversial recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the agency as a way of showing the president’s commitment to protecting consumers and overcoming Republican opposition in Congress.

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

On Friday, all eight Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder asking whether the appointment was constitutional and whether the Justice Department weighed in on the White House decision.

“The Justice Department and the White House owe it to the American people to provide a clear understanding of the process that transpired and the rationale it used to circumvent the checks and balances promised by the Constitution,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who organized the letter.

On Friday, Obama made the short trip to the consumer bureau’s offices, across the street from the White House complex, to tout its expanded role in the financial services marketplace.

Before introducing the president, Cordray said this was an important week for the agency and the country. With Cordray’s 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.

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, he 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.”

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