What Warren says to, and about, Obama and the Dems

Posted: September 06, 2012

FOR MANY disillusioned progressives, Elizabeth Warren, the consumer champion who is running for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts, represents the kind of change they thought they were getting when they helped elect Barack Obama.

So no matter what Warren said Wednesday night in her prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention, it was bound to result in a mixed message. It's encouraging that, after months of fixation on the deficit and a "grand bargain" with Republicans to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, President Obama and the Democrats are no longer running away from the progressive - and pugnacious - approach that Warren personifies.

They have latched on to Warren's passionate advocacy for government investment in infrastructure, both physical and educational. They are willing to say out loud that they "believe in a country where billionaires pay their taxes just like the secretaries do," as Warren put it last night.

But Warren's Senate candidacy is due in large part because Obama backed down in the face of Republican opposition and did not appoint her as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she was the obvious choice to lead: The bureau was her idea, and she organized it as special assistant to the president. Obama may have "spent his life fighting for the middle class," as Warren said Wednesday night. But when it came time to fight for her, he threw in the towel.

Last fall, a grainy video of off-the-cuff remarks by Warren at a fundraiser in a private home went viral and became a liberal rallying cry: "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," she said, pointing out the obvious - that business owners used public roads to move their goods, that their workers were educated at public expense and that the government paid for the police forces and firefighters that kept them safe. Obama was seconding that notion when he made the "you didn't build that" remark that Republicans have distorted to suggest he is anti-business. (We wish the administration were half as tough on Wall Street and banks and half as willing to support tough environmental and financial regulations as Republicans claim it is.)

Now, though, Democrats have embraced Warren's critique - and it's about time: "For many years now," she said last night, "our middle class has been chipped, squeezed and hammered." You heard Warren's influence in the keynote speech by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro on Tuesday and in first lady Michelle Obama's exhortation that, "When you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity . . . you do not slam it shut behind you . . . you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed."

"Americans are fighters," Warren said Wednesday night. But her experience in Washington over the past few years shows that rhetoric is meaningless without action to back it up, and it's impossible to appease political opponents whose only goal is to defeat you at the polls. We hope that Obama remembers this unmixed message if he gets another four-year lease at the White House.

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