WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday tapped North Carolina’s top bank regulator to take over the troubled mortgage-lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, potentially putting him at the center of one of the major economic debates facing Congress next year.

Joseph A. Smith Jr., 61, would become director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency if confirmed by the full Senate. There, he would also oversee the 12 federal home loan banks.

“Mr. Smith brings to this position both tremendous expertise and a deep commitment to strengthening our housing finance system for the American people,” Obama said. “I’m grateful that he has accepted this nomination, and I look forward to working with him in the months and years to come.”

Lawmakers will tackle housing market regulation next year as they restructure the two mortgage-purchasing agencies. Both are being backed with $135 billion from the Treasury Department and continue to lose money. Obama must decide by January how he wants to bring Fannie and Freddie out from government receivership.

The two government-sponsored agencies have played a critical role in the housing market. They traditionally buy mortgages from lenders, then hold or bundle them into mortgage-backed securities for investors worldwide – a process that keeps money flowing in the housing market.

In Smith, Obama has chosen a regulator experienced in pushing back against the types of housing deals that helped plunge the country into its financial crisis. North Carolina was the first state in the country with an anti-predatory lending law, and Smith has testified before Congress about increasing consumer representation.

He also argued in Senate testimony in 2007 – before the financial meltdown – that government-sponsored enterprises should help sustain affordable home ownership across the country.
Smith would replace acting FHFA Director Edward J. DeMarco.

While both Democrats and Republicans want changes to the structure of Fannie and Freddie, lawmakers differ on whether to privatize the two agencies entirely, or whether to retain some governmental backing.

If confirmed, Smith would be in charge of carrying out the changes.