Elizabeth Warren: Frances Perkins’ plight all over again

I’ve seen this before. Elizabeth Warren, the sharp-witted, tough-as-nails advocate for the brand new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has been appointed a “special advisor” to the creation of the new agency. She was long expected to be named head of the agency, which would have meant a confirmation battle in the Senate. So President Obama avoided that mess by potentially sidelining her from the something that wouldn’t exist without her.

In a happy coincidence, I just finished reading The Woman Behind the New Deal, Kirsten Downey’s biography of Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under FDR. She was a pioneering person and the first woman to serve in a president’s Cabinet. This, of course, came with much grumbling from the boy’s club and many unfounded personal attacks, including an attempt to impeach her. She was also a bargaining chip for FDR, a president who didn’t hesitate to play the political game, as publicly slighting her was an easy way to gain support for his initiatives from conservative Southern Democrats.

While FDR is known as the president who signed our Social Security program into law, it was really the brainchild of Frances Perkins. It was on her task list that she brought to the President before she was willing to accept the Secretary post, and without her pushing, pulling, and cajoling all those involved, it would likely never have come to pass. In order to meet a deadline on the proposal, she even brought committee leaders to her residence, put a bottle of whiskey on the table, and told them no one would leave until the task was finished.

So she would have made a logical candidate to head the new agency. But the politics didn’t match up. Senate approval of the bill looked risky until an amendment was added, saying that the Secretary of Labor should play no role in hiring its personnel. It ultimately meant Perkins had no control over the program she had championed. In the end, she named many of the agency’s top officials to be appointed by FDR and was asked to keep a close eye on the agency (something he would often ask her to do after he had deprived her of official oversight). But the greatest accomplishment of her life came with a personal blow in the form of a political compromise. Even years later, after she left Washington when Truman became president, she asked to be named the head of the agency and was declined. Someone else, who Truman needed to get favors from, wanted the job and got it.

The similarities between these two women were apparent even before Warren’s appointment. Both were direct speakers; both fought single-mindedly to protect the American people; both did so without thinking of personal gain or fame. And now we can add one more similarity: both were short-shifted out of positions of leadership in their own creations for political efficacy.

Much has changed for women since Frances Perkins served FDR, but they are still often political outsiders. This means they are good at spotting areas where we need new rules, but it also means that they can lose out to those closer to the political epicenter. A Wall Street insider like Tim Geithner still gets Obama’s ear over a watchdog like Warren. Let’s hope that Obama can cut through the political games to see her for what she is: just the woman we need fighting for us.


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