President-elect Obama has been smart about shifting the emphasis of our domestic economic policy from programs that almost solely help "Wall St." toward more populist efforts that help the middle class of America. His embrace of "Main St." both makes the best economic sense during this time of serious economic malaise, but it's also the right thing to do as middle class America is suffering the most from the rapacious economic elitism of the Bush years. As Obama continues to fill out his cabinet, he now has a unique opportunity to put his money where his mouth is - to 'walk the talk' about economic populism. The president-elect has just named his Commerce secretary; the person charged with maximizing the economic opportunity of American business. It's now time for him to create a cabinet level position with responsibility to execute his vision for supporting the American consumer. Obama should seize this unique time to create an institutional mechanism to safeguard the best interests of the American people and offset the inherent advantages of business. He should create a new Consumer Department with a cabinet level secretary at its head.
The Secretary of the Consumer Affairs Department would have responsibility to counterbalance our national lust for profit and greed - always keeping in mind the best interests of Americans in their role as "the consumer": to establish programs and policies in the best interests of the people as they struggle to breathe clean air, to eat wholesome and healthy food, and to otherwise purchase products and services that have their best interests at heart.
America has seen what happens if capitalism is left unchecked. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And if things get really bad, those who are harmed most are then looked upon to 'bail out' the institutions that have screwed them most.
The Secretary of Consumer Affairs would lead a department designed to ensure that middle and working class Americans have a voice at the table against the noxious by-products of capitalism that frequently harm people. It will fight against the corners that frequently get cut in consumer health and safety and ask the hard questions of companies as they go about their business of making money. The office will carry the weight of the White House and should not only be there to push business to 'do the right thing' vis-a-vis consumers, but also act as the lead throughout government to protect consumers in the same way that the Department of Homeland Security coordinates inter-governmental efforts around national security.
President-elect Obama has a unique opportunity at this moment. The current times offer a perhaps once in a generation chance to reshape the economic landscape in ways that can create real, fundamental change. I encourage him to strike out boldly and create a cabinet level Consumer Department. Over time, it can become one of those foundational institutions - like Social Security - that future generations will look back and wonder how we ever did without.