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Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute

July 18th, 2011 1:11 PM

Elizabeth Warren Versus Barack Obama on Leadership

Last week, I caught some of the grilling of Elizabeth Warren by GOP Congressmen during the House Oversight Reform Hearing. At one point, a Republican Congressmen asked Warren if she was “running a campaign” to convince people of the validity of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she is in the midst of setting up. The two of them went back and forth, because she didn’t really understand the question. He was trying to peg her as overtly political, using government resources to travel the country and do advocacy. Suddenly, she got the nature of the question, and turned to him and said, pointedly, “I always try to convince people that I’m right.”

There was some laughter in the room, but she wasn’t kidding. Warren believes that consumer protection is necessary for a just society, and spends a great deal of time trying to persuade the public of the necessity and legitimacy of government. Imagine that – a public servant who thinks that communicating with and persuading the public of the merits of their ideas.

Contrast this with Barack Obama, a person who never fails to wrap his true agenda in gauzy opaque process jargon. Obama won’t back his own NLRB or Boeing workers, or even Boeing itself; he thinks that neither side should waste time in court. He won’t announce Social Security or Medicare cuts, he wants it to be part of a Grand Bargain for whom no one has to take responsibility. He demands an end to earmarks, or something, but we need an infrastructure bank or something. As a result, the Democratic Party is enmeshed right now in a guessing game about the true goals of their leader, paralyzed and unable to govern. When Warren is present, by contrast, the Republicans are able to argue strongly that they do not believe in government as an agent of good, while Democrats are able to articulate the opposite. It’s a real, open, honest debate. There’s no sliding around with 11 dimensional chess nonsense, it’s straight up democracy.

The books written by Warren and Obama reveal their differing styles. I spent some time reading Warren’s The Two Income Trap, which she co-authored with her daughter, and it’s remarkable pre-crisis work. She wrestled with the guts of our society, with debt and bankruptcy, with how America treats you not when everything works well, but when everything fails. She tells the story of how Hillary Clinton stopped the bankruptcy bill when she was in the White House, but voted for it when she was in the Senate because of campaign contributions (Update: As first lady, Mrs. Clinton worked against the bill. She helped kill one version of it, then another version passed, which her husband vetoed. As a senator, in 2001, she voted for it, but it did not pass. When it came up again in 2005, she missed the vote because her husband was in the hospital, although she indicated she would have opposed it.). She talks about the problems of the housing bubble in the context of a failing education system, and the flip side of the Reagan revolution – the economic persecution of women and families. She named names, but more than that, she grounded her book in real data and the pain of millions of people she tried to protect. It is this research that led her to note that the stimulus, absent debt restructuring, would not work.

I’ve seen Warren in crowds before; they love her, they feel like finally, here’s a person who is stronger and smarter and better than the bankers. They crowd around her, tell her their stories, of bankruptcy, of joblessness, of sick kid or parent, as if to say “finally someone is listening”, someone who understands. It’s who she is. It’s real leadership. And it’s why she’s been able to coherently assemble a bureaucracy that has already won accolades for its attempts to simplify lending regulations, and why the Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel served as a remarkable oasis of intellectual honesty in Washington during the bailouts.

Obama could have chosen Warren just as easily as he could have chosen anyone else, since the GOP has vowed to filibuster any nominee. He just doesn’t think she’s right for the job. But again, this shouldn’t be surprising.

Many people are “disappointed” with Obama. But, while it is certainly true that Obama has broken many many promises, he projected his goals in his book The Audacity of Hope. In Audacity, he discussed how in 2002 he was going to give politics one more shot with a Senate campaign, and if that didn’t work, he was going into corporate law and getting wealthy like the rest of his peer group. He wrote about how passionate activists were too simple-minded, that the system basically worked, and that compromise was a virtue in and of itself in a world of uncertainty. His book was a book about a fundamentally conservative political creature obsessed with process, not someone grounded in the problems of ordinary people. He told us what his leadership style is, what his agenda was, and he’s executing it now.

I expressed skepticism towards Obama from 2005, onward. Paul Krugman, Debra Cooper, and Tom Ferguson among others pegged Obama correctly from day one. Obama broadcast who he was, through his conservative policy focus (which is how Krugman pegged him), his bank backers (which is how Ferguson pegged him), his political support of Lieberman (which is how I pegged him), and his cavalier treatment of women’s issues (which is how Debra Cooper pegged him). He is doing so again, with his choice to effectively remove Elizabeth Warren from the administration.

The news that Elizabeth Warren won’t be leading the CFPB isn’t good news, but it isn’t surprising. It’s more of a clarification, in fact, that Obama has illiberal beliefs. And where Warren goes from here is a good guessing game. Many Democrats are trying to distract from Obama’s choice by pretending that a risky Senate run in Massachusetts for a freshman seat in a broken institution is a step up for Warren. It may be. I suspect it could be tough for her to run for the Senate in a party in which the party leader has already shown he simply cuts against your core beliefs; inherently a Senate Democratic candidate will have to defend the administration’s record of the last few years. Regardless, I hope she continues to project her views widely in the broadest platform possible.

Obama has constructed a Presidency around the glory of radicalism through inaction, and has dominated our politics so thoroughly it’s hard to recall any other mechanisms of governance. Still, It is important to remember what real leadership can look like, which is why Elizabeth Warren can be a pivotal figure. After all, we may need real leaders one day.

Matt Stoller's twitter feed is @matthewstoller

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