Obama picks tough SEC nominee, renominates consumer watchdog

Olivier Knox

President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he has picked career white-collar crime prosecutor Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, which polices financial markets. And Obama set up a fight with Senate Republicans by renominating Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which they oppose.

Obama noted that he pushed a sweeping overhaul of Wall Street rules through Congress in 2010, but underlined: "It’s not enough to change the law. We also need cops on the beat to enforce the law."

He added: "These are people with proven track records. They are going to look out for the American people, for American consumers, and make sure that our marketplace works better—more transparently, more efficiently, more effectively. So I again would urge the Senate to confirm both of them as quickly as possible."

The Senate GOP blocked Cordray’s nomination in 2011 as part of an effort to water down the CFPB’s powers, calling the bureau unaccountable and warning it could trammel legitimate businesses. That led Obama to use his presidential power to appoint him to the post during a Senate recess, bypassing lawmakers.

The nominations could set up new confirmation battles at the dawn of his second term. Some Republican senators have signaled that they will oppose his choice for defense secretary, Republican Chuck Hagel, a former senator.

(The president’s liberal critics have frequently complained that his administration never prosecuted major Wall Street figures over shady business practices thought to have fueled the 2007-2008 global financial meltdown.)

White was the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, making her the top federal prosecutor for an area that includes Wall Street. Among White's notable tasks: She led the case against convicted mobster John Gotti, as well as against the terrorists who struck the World Trade Center in 1993, and the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

On Thursday, she vowed to "fulfill the agency’s mission to protect investors, and to ensure the strength, efficiency and the transparency of our capital markets."

Cordray, whose recess appointment expires at the end of 2013, declared, "Our mission is to stand on the side of consumers—our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters—and see that they’re treated fairly."