Six years ago this month, in the bitter winter cold, 2m people crammed on to the mall of Washington DC to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama. The gritty reality of what followed – a good if not transformational presidency – make it easy to forget the spirit and energy of that day, and Obama’s ascent generally. A palpable cry for change in the wake of the financial crisis then gripping the country, and for an outsider to shake up an ineffective DC establishment, swept him beyond McCain and Hilary Clinton before that.
But it’s worth bringing it to the debate over his successor as Democratic nominee for 2016. There’s a reason that, as the FT reports, “very few people in Washington have the clout that Senator Elizabeth Warren has right now”. More than anything else, it’s because she is tapping in to that same energy, and giving it greater form.
Warren has spent the last four years rallying against those on Wall Street and Capitol Hill who she blames for poisoning the American dream. Across a range of issues – the bank bailouts, credit card and mortgage regulation, student loans – she’s channelled a still widespread anger at the financial crisis, giving voice to a economic anxiety held by huge swathes of America.
This anxiety if of course borne of the same forces shaping people’s lives this side of the pond, despite an improving economy: stagnant wages, rising bills, a hollowing out of middle class jobs and growing inequality. Warren has argued that these are not facts of life akin to the weather, but in large part the product of rules “rigged” by an orthodoxy seizing the US political system, one kept in place through the influence of organised money. It’s an orthodoxy that has sometimes thwarted Obama, but one he has also felt the need to indulge.
In short, she is the first mainstream, progressive populist to fully emerge out of post-crash politics in America.
All of which has sparked a MoveOn.org petition to draft her in to the 2016 race against Hilary Clinton, who is threatening to run again.
As a result, much of the Democratic establishment are already on manoeuvres against Warren, sniffily dismissing her a East Coast liberal bound for the same fate as Howard Dean. At first glance it’s easy to sympathise with this. But there is more to Warren demanding of further attention.
For a start, she is (and speaks like) an Okie; a Southerner, hardly Democratic heartlands these days.
Despite reaching the gilded halls of Harvard (where she taught bankruptcy law), Warren came from very little. Her father was a janitor and a maintenance man, her mother a phone operator. So when she speaks about threats facing the American dream, she speaks with an authenticity the likes of Gore and Kerry never could.
More importantly, her politics are more complicated and progress beyond the traditional ‘tax and spend’ of the Democratic left. She is largely concerned with economic reform: breaking up and remaking the banking system, consumer protection, infrastructure. In her own words, “effective counterweights” against the interests of organised money. Before being elected in 2012, Warren set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency which has put over $4bn back in the pockets of Americans swindled by financial institutions.
In the context of tight budgets, and after a generation of trying to ameliorate inequalities through the tax system, this is the most sensible territory for the centre-left to be on.
But in many respects, Warren’s themes are far more in the conservative tradition than the Democratic one: aspiration, breaking up concentrations of power, making markets work better, opposing no-strings-attached bailouts. She also supports school vouchers in the public education system.
None of which is surprising given Warren’s Republican background, but all of which makes for an interesting blend of left and right that is making her slightly untouchable on Capitol Hill at the moment (“It’s like we’re dealing with the most popular girl in school”, one bank executive recently whinged). Most importantly, it gives her the potential to speak beyond the Democratic base if she gets it right.
She is also aided by the weaknesses of her potential opponents. The GOP have long since abandoned traditional conservative thought, in favour of an unhinged worship of the already wealthy (and a dependence on their largesse).
And then there’s Clinton. It isn’t obvious what agenda will particularly animate her bid for the White House, or her supporters – at the moment it’s just a strange cult of personality. In any event, the rising tide of anger and insecurity potentially pose a significant problem for her. Many of the questions angering Americans, certainly Democrats, today are essentially ones of economic reform. On this theme, Clinton is a status quo politician. What she thinks about these questions i’m not sure, but one suspects she doesn’t think about them very much at all. They involve upsetting vested interests that a generation of Third Way politicians cut their teeth making peace with. Moreover, as Warren herself found out, her more direct ties to Wall Street compromise her.
So if Warren does decide to run, she could easily wrongfoot the presumptive nominee. In many ways, Warren is already dictating the terms of the debate. Clinton recently felt the need to make a rather half-hearted and awkward pitch to define herself against Wall Street (“The least convincing populist on earth”, as one newspaper put it). Meanwhile, there are rumours even Obama himself sees Warren as his true heir, and is urging her to get in the ring.
It may not happen, of course. For a start, it isn’t clear Warren even wants it or feels herself up to it. After years of stalemate in Congress under Obama, Clinton’s strongest card is as an arm-twister who knows how to get things done. Warren would have to work hard to build a broad coalition of support, and strengthen her hand on foreign policy. But the elements are certainly there to make things very interesting. If you’re looking for a political earthquake, it is worth at least keeping an eye on the American left this year.