Wednesday evening, December 7th, Massachusetts's senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren met with Bay Area progressives. Some of us recalled a comparable meeting four years earlier with presidential candidate Barack Obama. At the time Obama was a rising star; now Warren is the rising star. While the two have similarities, there is one crucial difference.
Warren and Obama share the narrative of the triumphant individual, who starts from humble surroundings and works their way to a position of honor and acclaim. Raised by a single mother and her parents, Obama graduated from Harvard Law School and had a successful career as a community activist, lawyer, writer, and US senator. Warren was raised by parents of limited means. Originally trained as a speech pathologist, she worked as a teacher and eventually got a law degree from Rutgers. After a stint as a single mom, Warren remarried, and secured a teaching position at Harvard Law School, where she is now a tenured professor. In 2008 she gained national recognition by heading the congressional oversight panel studying the use of the $70 billion TARP bailout fund.
Warren and Obama value the benevolent community, emphasize the importance of working with our neighbors for the common good. Obama's 2004 Democratic convention speech established his populist credentials: "It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family." In September, Warren electrified progressives in a candid video shot at a campaign appearance: "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own -- nobody... you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
Obama's December 5th address in Osawatomie, Kansas, contained lines such as: "I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules." On December 7th, Warren echoed the same themes, stating "the economy is broken," the middle class is being "hammered," and confiding that the United State is running out of time unless "core changes" are made.
While Obama and Warren seem to be singing out of the same populist hymnal, there's a significant stylistic difference between them. Obama is cool and cerebral. Warren is feisty and down-to-earth. Obama was a civil rights attorney and lecturer in constitutional law. Warren became an expert in bankruptcy law and the economic pressures jeopardizing the middle class. Both Obama and Warren are very smart, but Warren understands what the US economy means to the 99 percent; Obama has to have Tim Geithner explain it to him.
Writing in the New York Times, Rebecca Traister observed, "Embracing Warren as the next 'one' is, in part, a way of getting over Obama; she provides an optimistic distraction from the fact that under our current president, too little has changed, for reasons having to do both with the limitations of the political system and the limitations of the man." This is too glib; it's an injustice to Obama and Warren.
Obama first came to the attention of progressives because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. He was an alternative to Hillary Clinton, who seemed to be the inevitable Democratic presidential candidate. Obama never claimed to have different economic policies than Clinton -- in a 2008 San Francisco appearance, he joked that he and Hillary had the same cadre of economic advisers. Then Wall Street melted down and America entered a prolonged jobless recession.
As described in Vanity Fair by Suzanna Andrews, in 1979 Warren had an epiphany: "Warren decided to investigate the reasons why Americans were ending up in bankruptcy court. 'I set out to prove they were all a bunch of cheaters.'... What she found, after conducting with two colleagues one of the most rigorous bankruptcy studies ever, shook her deeply. The vast majority of those in bankruptcy courts, she discovered, were from hardworking middle-class families, people who lost jobs or had 'family breakups' or illnesses that wiped out their savings." As a consequence of her work, Warren is uniquely prepared to deal with the US economy.
And she carries the passion of the newly converted. She didn't get to be head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because she'd pissed off Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. On December 7th, one of Warren's admirers praised her willingness to "call bullshit, bullshit." She's determined to tell the truth, no matter the consequences.
In the run up to the 2012 elections, Barack Obama will define himself as the champion of the middle class -- as compared to the Republican candidate. But the real populist, the one who gives voice to the 99 percent, will be Elizabeth Warren.