It's official: Obama has just nominated Tom Wheeler to be America's next top telecom regulator. Wheeler, a former wireless and cable lobbyist, might on paper be seen as a boon to industry and a blow to public-interest groups. The fear among critics is that Wheeler's ties to big business could threaten consumers. But in fact, the battle lines on Wheeler's confirmation process aren't hardening in a predictable way at all.
Consumer advocates themselves are somewhat divided on the pick. On Tuesday, Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation said he was "skeptical" of Wheeler's ability to "[hold] his former clients accountable." At the same time, a number of high-profile influentials have spoken out in Wheeler's favor -- including Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo Law School who was said to be in the running for FCC chair herself.
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Crawford often finds herself at odds with industry in her role as an outspoken defender of consumers, making the split among public-interest groups all the more noteworthy. But Gigi Sohn, the president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said Wheeler's left-wing critics simply don't know him well enough and that he plans to be more than a "traffic cop" with little actual power over policymaking and regulation.
"They've never worked with Tom Wheeler," said Sohn. "They're just going off his resume. And I just don't think a resume tells you everything."
Sohn was quick to downplay the divide among consumer advocacy groups, but as a parting shot drew comparisons between Wheeler and sitting commissioner Mignon Clyburn, whom many initially opposed over her ties to AT&T and her father, Rep. Jim Clyburn.
"We were convinced she was going to be an AT&T toadie," said Sohn. "We assumed the worst about Clyburn and we were totally wrong."
Obama's decision also sets up a theoretical confrontation with Senate Democrats, who rallied not behind Wheeler but behind a sitting commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel. Last month, Commerce Committee chairman Sen. John Rockefeller and dozens of his colleagues sent a letter to the president recommending Rosenworcel for the top FCC post. Yet there, too, Wheeler's name brings with it a sense of inevitability. Despite both the opportunity and a motive for making Wheeler's confirmation a difficult process, Rockefeller isn't likely to stand in the way.