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At a Time of Needed Financial Overhaul, a Leadership Vacuum

After the worst crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama has unleashed an unusual force to regulate the financial system: a bunch of empty seats.

With Sheila C. Bair soon to leave her post at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Obama administration will have five major bank regulatory positions either unfilled or staffed with acting directors.

The administration has inexplicably left open the vice chairman for banking supervision, a new position at the Federal Reserve created by the Dodd-Frank Act, despite having a candidate that many people think is an obvious choice: Daniel K. Tarullo. The new Consumer Financial Products Board chairman is unnamed. There are some lower-level positions that don't have candidates, including the head of the Treasury's Office of Financial Research and the Financial Stability Oversight Council insurance post.

Perhaps most important, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, is being headed by an acting comptroller, John Walsh, who took over the agency last August. Nine months have passed without a leader who might better reflect the Obama administration's views on banking regulation, a time lag made worse by the office's coddling of the banks even as they have acknowledged rampant abuse and negligence in the foreclosure process.

The vacancies come at a time that calls for stiffer regulatory examination. The financial regulatory system was remade under Dodd-Frank and requires strong leaders to put the changes into effect. Though the acting heads insist they feel empowered to make serious decisions, they have roughly the same authority as substitute high school teachers.

Supposedly, the Obama administration is getting close to naming people to head the comptroller's office and the F.D.I.C. But we've been hearing that for a while. In April, Barbara A. Rehm of American Banker wrote that the administration was working on a big package of nominations to send to the Hill all at once. A month later, we're still twiddling our thumbs in anticipation.

So what's going on?

In a vacuum of leadership, conspiracy theories arise. One is that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner is making a power grab and doesn't mind that these roles aren't filled. The idea is that he is asserting his influence over the Dodd-Frank rule-making process. A former adviser to Mr. Geithner dismissed that notion as ridiculous, and that's persuasive to me. It seems too Machiavellian by half.

If it's not Mr. Geithner, then who or what is responsible for the vacancies? Not surprisingly, people close to the administration blame Republicans. The nomination process has become hopelessly broken in Washington. Even low-level appointments are now deeply partisan affairs, the playthings of score-settling senators with memories like elephants and the social responsibility of hyenas (which probably insults hyenas).

The Obama administration put up Peter A. Diamond for a position on the Federal Reserve board. Winning a little something called the Nobel Prize hasn't helped him with confirmation, however. Sen. Richard Shelby, the powerful Alabama Republican and ranking member of the banking committee, is standing in his way. The senator also quashed the nomination of Joseph A. Smith Jr. to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

But much of the blame for this situation lies with the Obama administration. It's almost as if the president and his staff have thrown up their hands. The administration has had trouble finding good candidates who are willing to go through the vetting process and has shied away from fights. It also hasn't seeded the ground or supported the nominations it has made, people complain.

A Democratic Senate staff member confided worry to me about the fate of Mark Wetjen, whom the administration nominated last week as a candidate for a seat on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. “They didn't shop it and they didn't get buy-in,” the staff member said. “The administration doesn't seem to be putting any sort of effort into it.”

Making these appointments will help answer a question: Where does Mr. Obama stand on financial regulation?

With the Geithner appointment, the president chose early on the path of continuity over muscular regulation. Immediately, the Treasury secretary became the personification of every Obama financial policy. Mr. Geithner remains the most politically costly appointment Mr. Obama has made, saddling him with all the Bush presidency's financial crisis decisions. After all, Mr. Geithner, as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, was intimately involved in the emergency actions of September 2008. Republicans made great hay tying Democrats to the Wall Street bailouts in the 2010 midterm elections. Now, of course, Republicans are leading Democrats in Wall Street campaign donations.

With these positions unfilled, Mr. Obama is losing out on a political opportunity to draw a line between himself and his opposition.

But it's more important than that. Allowing these vacancies to linger drains leadership from the financial overhaul at the exact moment when it is needed most.

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