For what Barack Obama's press secretary once dismissed as "the professional left", the story of his presidency has been one of disappointments, large and small. The biggest was an early failure to break up the big banks and jail their executives in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The smaller ones are often to do with tone: Obama has spent most of his term trying to negotiate with Congressional Republicans who, many Democrats are convinced, are implacable ideologues bent on his destruction.
That's why the election in 2012 that has caught liberals' imaginations isn't Obama's re-election attempt. It's the contest for a Senate seat in Massachusetts, which has been freighted repeatedly with ideological symbolism. The seat belonged, until 2009, to the late lion of the Senate Ted Kennedy. In January 2010, the Republican Scott Brown won the seat and ended the Democratic "supermajority" in the Senate, along with the fantasy that Obama could bring about his central first-term project - a huge expansion of health coverage - through any sort of public consensus.
Now, it has become a first test for what you could call the post-Obama left: a nascent, militant liberalism that has lost some of its faith in presidential power and is seeking to rebuild itself from the ground up.
On 13 September, a woman called Elizabeth Warren entered the race to replace Brown. Warren is a 62-year-old grandmother from Oklahoma, as her campaign is quick to share. She is also a star Harvard professor who - and this is now the Republican line of attack - is suspiciously unwilling to respond to quiz-style questions about the Boston Red Sox.
Her main qualification, however, is as the scourge of Wall Street and the representative of a Democratic promise that remains unfulfilled. She made her name studying bankruptcy as a law professor and became convinced that the central problem for many US families was that they were being ripped off by shysters in the finance industry.
“It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house," she wrote in 2007 in the journal Democracy. "But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street - and the mortgage won't even carry a disclosure of that fact."
Warren's proposal was to establish a new agency to regulate credit cards and bank loans, in the way that the Federal Trade Commission has long regulated toasters and diet pills. When the financial crisis hit, White House and Congressional Democrats saw in her work one solution to the problem and speedily created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, over quiet but strenuous objections from the finance industry. Obama tasked Warren to set it up, but the banks and their Republican allies - after some testy hearings with her - made it clear that the Senate's GOP minority would do everything that it could to kill the appointment. Obama, picking his battles, passed her over for the job.
Warren left Washington evidently more convinced than ever of the malign power of the big banks and the crucial role of the government in regulating them. "Washington is rigged for big corporations that hire armies of lobbyists," she said in her announcement video. Then, in a campaign stop that friends and enemies alike have made a viral hit on YouTube, she gave a speech that electrified progressives.
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody," Warren said, arguing that US businesses rely on public amenities such as roads and fire departments. "Now, look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea - God bless. Keep a big hunk of it," she said. "But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
Warren is the most visible champion of the new populist left, which has reacted against Obama by targeting Wall Street. Yet she is not the only one. New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, recently scuttled a $20bn settlement between 50 state attorneys general and the big banks over mortgage practices, on the grounds that the states should use the investigation to force the kind of reckoning that Obama and his aides chose to avoid.
“Most of the American people do not feel there has been a full airing-out of these issues and they do not like the fact that people who caused these problems have not been held accountable," Schneiderman told me recently.
Meanwhile, around the corner from his office, a modest, week-long protest called Occupy Wall Street finally gained public attention in late September when it turned violent and a video circulated of a police officer spraying Mace in the faces of female protesters.
A rival's arrival
Days before Warren formally announced her campaign, however, it became clear that she wouldn't have the field of "post-Obama" populism entirely to herself. The new entrant: Barack Obama. In a speech that seemed to depart dramatically from two and a half years of legislation and negotiation, he laid out a clear and probably unsellable "jobs plan".
The president took a confrontational stance and offered a clear, alternative vision. "Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and the envy of the world," he said.
“But there's always been another thread running throughout our history - a belief that we're all connected and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation."
He sounded a bit like Warren.
Ben Smith writes for politico.com