What’s Elizabeth Warren Up To Now?

Is it me, or did the first-term Massachusetts senator sound like a presidential candidate at her big AFL-CIO speech this weekend? It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Did Sen. Elizabeth Warren sound the first volley of a 2016 campaign Sunday?

Warren’s stemwinding speech to the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles was lost in the flurry of news and live events: the opening day of the football season, the U.S. Open finals, the talk of potential attacks on Syria. So it didn’t get much ink.

But it’s worth reading and watching (here’s a snippet). Because as the next election cycle approaches, we might be hearing a lot more of it.

Warren is a hero of the left—for creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and removing Scott Brown from the seat formerly occupied by liberal icon Ted Kennedy. What’s more, she delivers a forthright, knowing, and articulate critique of big business and government, from the left. But what makes her interesting as a potential candidate is that a decent chunk of her indictment involves the economic record under President Obama. And unlike the two presumed candidates for 2016, Vice President Joe Biden and former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Warren was never a part of the inner circle. They can’t very well run hard and comfortably against the economic record of the past six years. And they won’t implicitly take some swipes at the Obama administration.

The Wall Street, Council on Foreign Relations, and Davos types that have dominated Obama’s economic-policy team regard populism as a dirty word. But Warren is forthright about her populism. She represents, in Sen. Paul Wellstone’s phrase, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” And, as she points out, many of the populist critiques of the nation’s current economic and financial arrangements are quite popular.

The former Harvard Law School professor started her speech on Sunday with a shout-out to “the operating engineers—my brother’s union for many years,” then launched into some good old-fashioned class warfare. “When important decisions are made in Washington, too often, working families are ignored,” she said. “Those with power fight to take care of themselves and to feed at the trough for themselves, even when it comes at the expense of working families getting a fair shot at a better future.”

She gave a brief dissertation of the triumphs of the Democratic Party and organized labor in the 20th century: outlawing child labor, establishing minimum-wage laws, the New Deal, Social Security, civil rights, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Then Warren introduced herself into the narrative:

“And in 2008, when the economy crashed and it was time to reign in financial predators and Wall Street banks, labor was there—you were there—standing shoulder to shoulder with me, standing with President Obama, and fighting for consumer protection. And thanks to those efforts, we now have a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—with a confirmed director to lead it. And just so everyone knows, that little agency has already returned half a billion dollars to families who were cheated by big financial institutions and helped tens of thousands of consumers solve their problems with big banks.”

But the Obama years haven’t been full of progress. The Supreme Court has been captured by right-wing business interests. Look at the increasing corporate culture of the federal courts. According to a recent study, the five conservative justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court are in the top 10 most pro-corporate justices in a half century,” she said.

That can be blamed on Republicans. But some of the other complaints she articulated can be chalked up to the Obama administration’s handiwork or neglect. “Five years ago, experts said the banks had to be bailed out because there was too much concentration in banking and one failure would bring down the entire economy,” she said. “Now the 4 biggest banks are 30 percent larger than they were 5 years ago. The 5 largest banks now hold more than half of all banking assets in the country.” And those Too Big to Fail banks enjoy an $83 billion annual subsidy as a result of their status.

The Dodd-Frank Act has been delayed and watered down. “When a new approach is proposed—like my bill with John McCain, Angus King, and Maria Cantwell to bring back Glass-Steagall—you know what happens—they throw everything they’ve got against it.” (President Obama and the economic advisers he trusts the most also aren’t in favor of bringing back a full divorce between commercial and investment banks.)

Warren criticized free-trade deals, too. “For big corporations, trade-agreement time is like Christmas morning. They can get special gifts they could never pass through Congress out in public,” she said. “From what I hear, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters, and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the upcoming trade deals in their favor.” (In 2011 President Obama approved trade deals with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea over the AFL-CIO’s objections.)

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Warren pointed out that much of the agenda that centrist Democrats dismiss as left-wing initiatives are, in fact, mainstream. (I’ve inserted the links she provided as footnotes to the text of the speech.) “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement—and you know what? So do more than 80 percent of people. Wall Street will fight us, but the American people are on our side. We believe in raising the minimum wage—and so do 71 percent of people ... We believe in preventing cuts to Social Security benefits—and so do 87 percent of Americans. The Washington insiders will fight us, but the American people are on our side ... And we believe that the sequester is stupid. And, you know what? A majority of Americans—including a majority of Republicans agree with us too.”

Most of those items can be read as swipes at the Obama administration’s failings—the inability to get a boost in the minimum wage, the constant (and justified) fear that he’d be willing to cut entitlements in exchange for a grand bargain on the deficit, the failure to be tougher on Wall Street. When campaign season starts in earnest in 2015, don’t look for Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton to stand up and channel those resentments and suspicions. They may not have been in the room, but they were on the team. Warren was in the room, but, as has been made abundantly clear, was never really on the team.

Of course, there are limits to building a candidacy on the decaying pillar of labor. Unions—public and private sector alike—are a shrinking force in politics and in American life and the Democratic Party. And we should recall that one of the last candidates to boast of representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party was Howard Dean in 2004, and his candidacy ended in a scream.

Besides, who in their right mind would think that a liberal senator from a liberal state would get elected to a first term and then start running for president a few years later against Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden?