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With the presidential race intensifying, Richard Cordray is about to become a household name -- Republican shorthand for the recess appointment heard ‘round the political world.
Last week, President Barack Obama bypassed a Senate roadblock to install the former Ohio attorney general as the nation’s top consumer-finance watchdog. The decision, which Obama announced in a visit to Shaker Heights High School, brought immediate scorn from the GOP.
Mindful of the election-year climate, PolitiFact Ohio was eager for reaction from Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and favorite for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney, in a pejorative nod to Obama’s hometown, delivered as might be expected.
"This action represents Chicago-style politics at its worst and is precisely what then-Sen. Obama claimed would be ‘the wrong thing to do,’ " Romney said in an emailed statement.
PolitiFact Ohio will leave alone the "Chicago-style politics" remark. But because Republicans are likely to repeat variations of this argument in the coming months, we decided to dig deeper to learn whether the president had indeed departed from an earlier stance on recess appointments.
So first we checked in with the Romney campaign to ask for citations. Spokesman Ryan Williams quickly referred us to two Obama quotes from 2005. That was the year then-President George W. Bush bypassed Congress to install John Bolton as United Nations ambassador.
And as the quotes Ryan offered show, then-Sen. Obama was not at all happy about it.
On July 30, 2005, the Associated Press reported that Obama said a recess appointment would be "the wrong thing to do." Bolton, Obama added, "is the wrong person for the job."
The other article the Romney campaign cited appeared a few days later in the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill. Here’s how Williams presented Obama’s quote about Bolton to PolitiFact Ohio: "To some degree, he’s damaged goods … somebody who couldn’t get through a nomination in the Senate. And I think that means we will have less credibility …"
But when we tracked down the original quotes, we found Williams left out key context.
In the AP story, Obama followed up his "wrong thing to do" comment by acknowledging that Bush "is entitled to take that action, but I don't think it will serve American foreign policy well."
And here is Obama’s full quote from the State Journal-Register:
"To some degree, he’s damaged goods. Not in the history of the United Nations representatives have we ever had a recess appointment, somebody who couldn’t get through a nomination in the Senate. And I think that means we will have less credibility and ironically be less equipped to reform the United Nations in the way that it needs to be reformed."
In their entirety, these quotes suggest Obama’s reservations were less about the process and more about the appointee. Obama clearly recognized Bush’s right to make the recess appointment. But Obama and other Senate Democrats had opposed Bolton’s appointment primarily because he was a known critic of the U.N. They argued that Bolton’s record made him a bad fit for the job, a point that would be underscored by Bush’s recess appointment.
This is not the first time an Obama recess appointment has been compared with the Bolton pick. In early 2010, the president took flak for appointing Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans feared Becker, a lawyer who had worked for the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, would favor unions in labor-management disputes.
At the time, PolitiFact noted that during the Bolton controversy, Democrats accused him of submitting inaccurate information to the Senate. PolitiFact also considered a letter that Obama and 35 other Senate Democrats sent to Bush in protest of the Bolton appointment. They asked that Bush "submit a new nomination," rather than send an unconfirmed ambassador to the U.N.
PolitiFact found Obama’s recess appointment of Becker to be a "Half Flip," noting that the GOP objected to Becker, as the Democrats objected to Bolton, on "policy grounds" and merits.
"If every appointee for whom Obama made a recess appointment was noncontroversial, Obama would have a good argument that the two situations were different," PolitiFact ruled.
Cordray, conversely, was not himself controversial. Republicans who blocked his appointment expressed little if any concern about his temperament or views. Many had kind words for him. Their beef was with the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau he now leads.
Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, explained the differences thusly in a Jan. 5 briefing: "There is no question about [Cordray’s] qualifications for this job. In the case of Mr. Bolton there were a great many questions about his qualifications for the job and a great deal of opposition to his nomination on the merits, on his qualifications, and that makes this quite different."
After reviewing the Bolton appointment and the full statements on which Romney bases his claim, we’re not sure the Cordray situation is, as Carney contends, "quite different." Nor is it, as Romney asserts, "precisely" what Obama once said was "the wrong thing to do."
Romney’s claim is partially accurate. In both cases you have a president ignoring the protests of the opposing party in Congress. And Obama did criticize the Bolton appointment.
But in Bolton’s case you have Democrats scrutinizing the appointee himself and then-Sen. Obama questioning whether Bolton can effectively work with an institution he has criticized. In Cordray’s case, you have Republicans blocking an appointee because they are unhappy with the agency.
Romney used the word "precisely" to draw a comparison that was not nearly as black and white as he implied. And the versions of the quotes that his staff cited in support of his claim were abridged, leaving out important details that would help the listener put Obama’s statements in context.
As such, on the Truth-O-Meter, we rate Romney’s claim Half True.
Romney for President, news release on Cordray appointment, Jan. 4, 2012
Email exchange with Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams, Jan. 5, 2012
Democratic senators’ letter to President George W. Bush in protest of Bolton appointment, July 29, 2005; accessed via Nexis
The Associated Press, "Officials: Bush plans to install Bolton, July 30, 2005, accessed via Nexis
The (Springfield, Ill.) State Journal-Register, "Bush sends Bolton to U.N.; Durbin, Obama criticize move," Aug. 2, 2005, accessed via Nexis
PolitiFact, "Comparing Obama’s recess appointment of Craig Becker with Bush’s nomination of John Becker," March 27, 2010
The White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, Jan. 5, 2012
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