12/17/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

'Will You Serve Your Full 6-Year Term as U.S. Senator?' Absolutely, Said Sens. Warren and Obama

Earlier this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren stated unequivocally that she would not run for president in 2016: "I am not running for president and I plan to serve out my term." That's it, then, right? No how, no way.

On the other hand, when Tim Russert asked then Senator-elect Obama in November 2004 if he would serve out his full Senate term, Obama replied: "Absolutely." But hold on a minute, that was four years before the 2008 election. Well, in January 2006 -- right about where we are now in terms of the 2016 cycle -- Russert asked Obama if he would run for president or vice president in 2008. "I will not," he replied. Nine months later gave birth to, "I have thought about it over the last several months." Four months after that, Barack Obama stood in front of a cheering crowd in Springfield, Illinois, and announced his candidacy for the White House. So much for filling out his term in the Senate.

I bring this up not to criticize President Obama or to question the sincerity of his early denials. Nor do I bring this up as evidence that Sen. Warren is going to run for president, or even that she is considering doing so. I take her at her word when she says she is not considering it. My point is this: things change. Remember that.

Why are so many Democrats excited about the prospect of an Elizabeth Warren candidacy and presidency? Because our party, like all parties at all times, has to decide which values it will champion. We must remember that the best chance we have to move our party in the direction we believe it must go is to nominate strong progressives. It's all about the primaries.

Among the top echelon of potential 2016 presidential nominees, I don't see a more effective fighter for progressive values -- in particular the fight for the 99 percent against the concentration of power and wealth among the 1 percent -- than Elizabeth Warren. So, even though there are other strong candidates for our party's nomination, people I would have no trouble backing in a general election campaign, I'm going to keep talking about Elizabeth Warren.

One thing I want to address is the idea I've run across that progressives shouldn't want Warren to run for president because somehow she can do more in the Senate. This may be folks trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and there's nothing wrong with that. In any case, I have two responses. First, the idea that any senator can have a greater influence than a president on shaping the direction of our country is simply incorrect. It's impossible given the power a president holds in our system of government versus that of one senator. Second, the act of running for president in no way takes Elizabeth Warren out of the Senate. She's not up for re-election in Massachusetts until 2018, and there is no need for her to resign in order to run. Can she be a highly effective senator in the mold of Ted Kennedy if she remains in that august body for a decade or two? Of course. But let's not kid ourselves about where she could be most effective.

The debate over the Democratic Party's direction is not a new one. Looking back at Obama circa 2004, we saw almost the same fight that broke out this past week after Third Way -- the successor to the Democratic Leadership Coalition (DLC) -- bemoaned the economic populism of Democrats like Warren and Bill DeBlasio. Check out this exchange from Obama's November 2004 appearance on Meet The Press:

MR. RUSSERT: The Democratic Leadership Council, which has been a voice for more centrist views, if you will, in the Democratic Party issued the following statement: "What happened? ...we have to face facts. We got our clocks cleaned up and down the ballot."

Russert described the DLC's claim that national security, "reform" and moral values/culture were the three areas in which Democrats failed to make their case, explaining why John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, and why Democrats lost House and Senate seats. Interestingly, the DLC didn't mention economics at all in 2004. Obama, always polite, acknowledged the need to talk about these issues, including values, morals and faith, but then he shifted to talking about morality in a different way. Here, in the first national interview after his election to the Senate, what was the great immorality he mentioned?:

SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: Of course, part of our message has to be that moral values includes the immorality of 45 million uninsured or the immorality of working people who are having trouble raising a family despite working full-time. That has to be part of the moral equation. And if we are able to frame things in that fashion, then I think we can be successful.

That's how he pushed back against the DLC in 2004, and it's how he pushed back against the DLC successor Third Way this week, when he declared his intention to put economic inequality at the center of his agenda for the remainder of his presidency. The most significant legislative achievement of his presidency thus far, the Affordable Care Act, addresses both of these fundamental immoralities. Obamacare provides subsidies to purchase health insurance to those who couldn't previously afford it, paid for to a good degree by those with high incomes. Through these subsidies, on top of the income tax hikes on the rich that kicked in this year, he has made our federal tax code going forward quite a bit more progressive.

The fight between Third Way types and progressives for the soul of the Democratic Party is one that progressives must win. We have a role to play in that. If you don't think it was a big deal when Daily Kos announced it would never again endorse or fund raise for any Third Way member, the fact that the New York Times mentioned it should tell you that it is.

Going forward, Elizabeth Warren will be central to that fight. I hope she takes that fight into the presidential primaries. Such a campaign would be good for our party and for our country, not to mention for gender equality.

I know she said she's not running for president. I don't care. I'm going to keep talking about her and encouraging her to get in the race. If she doesn't run, so be it. We'll find that out at some point in 2015. Either way, she's going to be one of the leaders of our movement and our party for years to come. That much is for sure.