PRESIDENT Obama says his recess appointment yesterday of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Product Bureau was an "obligation."

He wasn't referring to the urgency for action three-plus years after a combination of hinky financial products brought the economy to its knees. What he said was, "When Congress refuses to act . . . and puts people at risk, I have an obligation as president to do what I can without them," he said. Finally.

There may be a lawsuit over it. For sure there will be harsh political attacks over it. But this is a fight that should have been fought months, even years ago, one with implications that go far beyond consumer protection.

Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general with a strong record on consumer issues, has all the qualities it will take to be an excellent director. But yesterday's announcement highlights the fact that Obama had the power all along to appoint the very best person for the job - Elizabeth Warren, who first had the idea for the bureau and who, as a special assistant to the president, organized it. (Warren is running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. If elected, she will make an excellent senator who, we hope, will not follow other "celebrities" like Hillary Clinton and Al Franken and spend the first few years on the backbench.)

Even before Obama tapped Cordray last summer, Senate Republicans had vowed to filibuster the nomination of any director for the CFPB unless Obama agreed to, among other things, abolish the position of director and restructure the agency. Without a permant director, the bureau could not fully function: It couldn't supervise independent payday lenders, debt collectors and credit-reporting agencies. In effect, the Senate was attempting to nullify legislation passed by duly elected representatives by refusing to implement it.

Just as they promised, Republicans in the Senate last month refused to allow an up-or-down vote for Cordray's nomination, even though a clear majority of senators supported him. If Obama had not acted, the CFPB would, for most intents and purposes, be dead.

Of course, Republicans howled over the recess appointment - only Obama's 29th, compared with 171 for President George W. Bush and 273 for Ronald Reagan. They claimed the president's action is unconstitutional, arguing that the Congress is technically not in recess. In one of several mad games being played in recent years, neither the House nor the Senate has passed an adjournment resolution - and each house has been holding pro forma sessions every three days.

That is likely as far as it will go: Do Republicans really want "pro forma session" as an election year slogan?

We hope that the Cordray appointment is a sign of a president newly determined to meet his obligations to do what he can without Congress.