WASHINGTON — Elizabeth Warren was taking up a lot of time and energy at the White House — so much that then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel sent an e-mail.
“We have a lot more pressing issues,” he wrote. “We are spending a lot of time on one person.”
In a new book, former Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner reveals the extent to which President Obama and his top advisers were torn over whether to appoint Warren to head the Consumer Protection Finance Bureau. Some wanted Warren to have the job, despite intense opposition. Others said the president should consider a recess appointment.
A senior adviser, Pete Rouse, had another idea: Maybe she could run for US Senate in Massachusetts.
“The president, who almost never called me at home, made an exception on this issue,” Geithner wrote. “It was really eating away at him.”
Geithner’s book — coupled with one that Warren released last month — provides a fuller picture of a key period that ultimately led to Obama deciding not to nominate her to run a new bureau that was her brainchild. That decision pushed Warren to run for the US Senate and helped her unleash a populist force that has further complicated matters for the Obama administration and is having a further imprint on Democratic Party policy.
Geithner and Warren had strongly diverging viewpoints of Wall Street regulation, which caused disagreements and heated discussions. Or, as Geithner wrote, “I had a complicated relationship with Warren.”
Warren did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Some of Warren’s top advisers have long believed that Geithner helped derail any possibility Warren had to lead the Consumer Protection Finance Bureau. Geithner said he told other advisers that he would not try to talk Obama out of nominating Warren but that “everyone in the room knew she had no chance of being confirmed.”
Senate Republicans were vowing to oppose anyone who was nominated, but even some Senate Democrats were expressing reservations about Warren.
In “Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises,” Geithner wrote that he and his chief of staff, Mark Patterson, floated an idea that Warren become the acting director, avoiding a confirmation fight but giving her the chance to be the face of consumer protection and build the bureau. That is the option that eventually prevailed – despite initial hesitation from Warren herself, which she wrote about in her own book, “A Fighting Chance,’’ released last month.
“We were initially amused, and eventually a bit annoyed, when Warren, who had spent so much time bemoaning Treasury’s nefarious work against the public interest, quickly began trying to hire away a bunch of our staffers,” Geithner wrote. “She was unapologetic when my team confronted her about it.”
“Stress Test” was released on Monday. It details Geithner’s role during the country’s worst financial collapse since the Great Depression.
Geithner also wrote about an early encounter with Scott Brown, then the newly elected Republican senator from Massachusetts who had railed against special interest deals.
“We talked about our kids and about triathlons,” Geithner wrote. “When the conversation finally turned to substance, he said he liked the idea of financial reform and expected to be with us. But without any irony or self-consciousness, he said he needed to protect two financial institutions in Massachusetts from the Volcker Rule’s restrictions.”
“Then he furrowed his brow and turned to his aide,” Geithner wrote. “‘Which ones are they, again?’ he asked.”
The companies, Brown’s aide said, were Fidelity and State Street.
The gist of Brown’s request was reported at the time. “The key thing that we’ve been working on for three weeks — that directly affects MassMutual, Liberty Mutual, Fidelity — it’s not in there,’’ Brown said in May 2010, adding that he would support the bill if those changes are made. Eventually, those changes were made — and Brown supported the bill.
Brown, like Warren, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Not all of Geithner’s writing about Warren was critical. He called Warren a “noted consumer protection advocate” and “one of our most ardent and eloquent liberal critics.”
But early on they were at odds, with Warren in charge of an oversight panel looking into the bank bailouts and how federal dollars were being spent. She and Geithner had some memorably testy exchanges.
“Her criticisms of the financial rescue, if well-intentioned, were mostly unjustified, and her TARP oversight hearings often felt more like made-for-YouTube inquisitions than serious inquiries,” Geithner wrote. TARP was the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, which some considered a bailout.
“She was worried about the right things, but she was better at impugning our choices — as well as our integrity and our competence — than identifying any feasible alternatives,” he wrote. “On the other hand, she really was smart and innovative about consumer protection, with sophisticated ideas about reform. She had a gift for explanation.”
Geithner also detailed his interactions with one of his mentors, former Harvard University president Larry Summers, and some of the awkwardness between them. Geithner was chosen to be Treasury secretary — a position Summers once held — while Summers took on an advisory role on the National Economic Council. While in Chicago for interviews with the president-elect in 2008, they bumped into each other in the airport lounge at O’Hare.
“I told Larry I had not sought the job and had urged Obama to choose him as secretary, which didn’t really make the situation less awkward,” Geithner wrote.
“It’s no secret that Larry is brilliant, but until you’ve been carved up by his intellectual scalpel, it’s hard to grasp just how brilliant,” he added. “There is no one better at exposing the flaws in an argument.”
Geithner revealed that his father, who voted for President Obama in 2008, voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 — even though his son was a top Cabinet official in the Obama White House.
Geithner also wrote about a private discussion he had with Glenn Hubbard, who was Romney’s top economic adviser. After a speech in New York, Hubbard complained to Geithner about the Obama administration’s unwillingness to endorse the Simpson-Bowles plan to shrink the nation’s deficit. Geithner noted that there was $2 trillion in tax increases.
“When you guys are willing to raise taxes, we can talk about Simpson-Bowles,” he said.
“Well of course we have to raise taxes,” Hubbard responded. “We just can’t say that now.”
Hubbard denied that he ever endorsed raising taxes, a stance that Romney and many Republicans oppose.
“He’s going to go out and say what he wants,” Hubbard told POLITICO. “It just happens to be a lie.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.