Elizabeth Warren: Not Ready for Presidential Prime Time

Is there a huge public demand for a populist crusade for financial reform—or is that just liberal wonks' pipe dream?
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Gutsy, smart, and hyper-articulate, Elizabeth Warren is quickly becoming the voice of progressivism in Washington. Along with departing regulator Gary Gensler, Warren probably did more than anyone in Washington to bulk up Dodd-Frank from its rather flimsy beginnings and turn it into a financial-reform law with some weight. She also speaks out eloquently for the beleaguered middle class and on the deeper problem of income inequality.

But the idea that somehow this growing reputation translates into a competitive bid for the 2016 presidential nomination—The New Republic recently suggested on its cover that Warren represents the "soul" of the Democratic Party more than Hillary Clinton—is pretty over the top.

Here's why. As impressive and quotable as she is as a senator—"I'm really concerned 'too big to fail' has become 'too big for trial,'" Warren memorably declared at her very first Banking Committee hearing—she is basically a one-issue political figure. And that doesn't get you into the White House in this era. (OK, fine, Barack Obama first came to national attention by declaring Iraq a "dumb" war, but more on that later.) Warren's punditocratic boosters, like Jonathan Chait of New York, have tried to compensate for her one-issueness by suggesting that the issue that Warren became famous for is still, as Chait put it, "the most potent, untapped issue in American politics." 

And what might Chait be talking about? Get ready: financial reform. That's right. An issue almost no one talks about anymore and far fewer people understand. I ought to know because I've spent tens of thousands of words trying to get people to talk about it since I published a 2010 book called Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned America's Future Over to Wall Street. I fully agree that Obama failed miserably to exploit a potential populist issue that, once upon a time, might have made him the second coming of FDR. "Surveys show that both Left and Right, liberals and conservatives, were united in wanting to see fundamental change to Wall Street and big finance," I wrote in 2011. "Yet rather than seizing the chance at the kind of leadership that might have unified a good part of the country, Obama threw himself into an issue that divided Left and Right as never before, and which was not directly related to the historic crisis at hand—health care."

But that moment has long passed. Warren has consistently been a powerful, positive voice on financial reform, and it got her the party nomination in Massachusetts. But that's Massachusetts. A Harvard Law professor who became an expert in mortgage fraud and bankruptcy and later conceived of one of Dodd-Frank's most significant reforms, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she's never done much of anything else in public life, other than chair the TARP oversight committee. And her "issue" has faded in popular imagination. Remember the Occupy Wall Street movement? You're forgiven if you don't. It petered out without a trace (while the Tea Party movement doesn't seem to go away, demonstrating that you can have a successful movement these days; OWS just wasn't it).

And with each passing year the causal connection between Wall Street's unprosecuted perpetrators and the terrible recession and national PTSD they set in motion has grown more distant, draining the issue of its populist potential. In 2012 when Mitt Romney promised, and then failed, to propose an alternative to Dodd-Frank, almost no one cared. Polls consistently show that while the U.S. public is still mainly concerned about the economy (although the numbers have been steadily falling), Wall Street is way down the list, behind health care, immigration, education, guns, and a host of social issues. By the time the 2016 race rolls around, nearly eight years will have passed since the financial crisis.  

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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