On Elizabeth Warren's Experience and Lack Thereof

by Jonathan Cohn | July 22, 2010

Elizabeth Warren may be the best choice to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Or she may not be. As I wrote previously, I really don't know. But I do have one more thought about what's apparently the main argument against her candidacy: Her relative lack of managerial experience.

Warren's critics say that she's never run an organization like the new consumer bureau. She may be brilliant, charismatic, and passionate, but she hasn't demonstrated that she has the chops to lead the agency. All she has done is lead the Congressional Oversight Panel on the financial bailout. She's done it well, but it's not the same thing. As Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post, "Will Elizabeth Warren be as effective as a bureaucrat as she is as a guest on the Daily Show?"

It's the right question to ask. People tend to evaluate executive branch appointments purely on philosophy and communications skills: It's all about what the appointee believes and how well he or she looks on camera. But if you work in government or talk to somebody who does, you'll discover that seemingly mundane job skills--even something as simple as being well organized--can make a huge difference in effectiveness, at least in the executive branch. (With a judicial appointment, philosophy obviously is the most important issue, by far.)

Still, experience isn't everything, Particularly when it comes to a new agency, charged with carrying out a signature domestic policy initiative, there's a case for appointing a relatively inexperienced visionary who can recruit the best staff and create an internal culture that will last long after the appointee is gone. Obama himself seems to agree, since that's basically what he did a few weeks ago, when he named Donald Berwick to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). 

All the adjectives I used to describe Warren--brilliant, charismatic, and passionate--apply to Berwick. The difference is that Warren's cause is protecting consumers from abusive financial practices while Berwick's is improving the quality of medical care. Berwick has never run an agency as large or influential as CMS, just as Warren has never run anything as powerful as the new regulatory board.

The analogy between the two is not precise. Berwick doesn't have to create CMS from scratch, although he does need to change its culture and mandate. But if Obama wanted to appoint Warren, his administration could help her in the same way they helped Berwick: By surrounding her with capable deputies who can handle some of the managerial duties.

Of course, when Obama first tapped Berwick, quite a few insiders worried about his lack of experience, just as Warren's do now. It's too soon to know whether those fears were baseless.

Update: I added a link to my previous item on Warren.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-cohn/76491/elizabeth-warrens-experience-and-lack-thereof