What an Elizabeth Warren Presidency Would Look Like
IF ELIZABETH WARREN WINS THE DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION, she will have prevailed against daunting odds. She will have overcome a potentially career-ending scandal (the DNA test debacle) and defeated not only the runner-up in the 2016 Democratic presidential contest, but a popular two-term former vice president. If she defeats President Donald Trump, it would mean an economic populist defeated a corrupt plutocrat, that the most leftwing Democratic presidential nominee in history defeated a racist reactionary, that a woman defeated America’s most famous misogynist. It would be an extraordinarily powerful moment. [This is one of two cover stories of our dual-sided January issue.]
To understand how Warren would create big structural changes as president, it’s helpful to look at how she has made change in the past.
THE STANDARD ADVICE TO FRESHMEN SENATORS IS THIS: Keep a low profile and suck up to your senior colleagues. As a newly elected senator in 2013, Elizabeth Warren did neither.
Instead, Warren used her perch on the Senate Banking Committee to excoriate ineffectual regulators, duplicitous CEOs, profiteering student lenders and other financial industry ne’er-dowells (interrogations made famous in videos that went viral). She publicly clashed with establishment Democrats such as Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.) and Joe Manchin (W.V.). She even took on President Barack Obama, leading the fight against several administration priorities, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and a pharmaceutical bill she described as “a bunch of special giveaways” to Big Pharma. Warren succeeded in getting under Obama’s skin to such an extent that he took the rare step of criticizing her repeatedly by name.
Progressive strategist and Warren supporter Murshed Zaheed says Warren was able to buck the Democratic establishment because she “came to the Senate with a movement behind her.” As a member of various federal and congressional advisory committees over the previous two decades—on issues like bankruptcy and the 2008 bank bailout—Warren had developed close ties to labor, consumer and netroots activist groups, including the AFL-CIO, Americans for Financial Reform and MoveOn.org. During her 2012 Senate race, her campaign built a massive email list and a grassroots army of small donors. So when Warren broke ranks, outside groups and the grassroots “had her back,” says Zaheed.
The critique from some on the Left paints Warren as a technocrat who doesn’t understand movements as the driving force of social change. But Warren’s signature policy accomplishments—including the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), loan forgiveness for students ripped off by for-profit colleges, and the Federal Reserve decision to punish Wells Fargo for its crooked financial practices—have all paired a skillful strategy from inside the system with strong coordination with outside grassroots groups.
In speeches and comments on the campaign trail, Warren frequently credits movements and the grassroots. At her campaign launch in Lawrence, Mass., Warren paid tribute to the workers there who organized a historic strike in 1912. “The story of Lawrence is a story about how real change happens in America,” she said.
One prominent feature of Warren’s theory of change is the importance of planning and strategy. For some on the Left, the unofficial Warren campaign slogan, “She’s got a plan for that,” grates. It contains a whiff of “let the politician handle it,” rather than the movement on the ground. But Nicole Carty, an activist who supports Warren and has worked with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, notes successful movements “have plans. They have strategies.” Carty says movements that force political change often don’t know how to implement transformative policies, which is why Warren’s talent for proposing “ways things can get done and how they will be implemented is a critical and unique skill.”
Warren’s campaign has released more than 50 plans on nearly every public policy under the sun, revealing a specific and highly visible agenda—in marked contrast with vague promises offered by other candidates. Carty says that while other campaigns are focused only on “what’s politically possible and feasible” in this moment, Warren’s plans “are about having a vision and fighting for it.”
Carty cites the wealth tax as one example, which “visionary implementer” Warren was the first in the race to propose and three other candidates picked up. Warren’s wealth tax—a two-cents-on-the-dollar tax on assets over $50 million—is so easy to understand that “two cents!” is chanted at Warren events. If you’re a homeowner, Warren says, you have “been paying a wealth tax for years. They just call it a property tax. I just want their tax to include the diamonds, the yachts and the Rembrandts.” The proposal is straightforward while being, Carty says, a “visionary idea that actually gets to the heart of wealth injustice and righting that in a reparative way.”
While the wealth tax is popular with voters, it’s unclear whether Democrats will command a big enough majority in Congress to pass it, or if centrist Democrats would support it. But legislation won’t be her only tool. The president controls an enormous bureaucracy and has a vast array of administrative, regulatory and enforcement powers at her disposal. An activist president could enact policies to cancel student debt, lower prescription drug prices, put a moratorium on drilling on public lands, require all federal contractors to pay a $15 minimum wage, break up the banks and Big Tech, and much, much more—all with the stroke of a pen.
Warren would be well positioned to kick the enforcement and regulatory powers of the executive branch into high gear. She helped build the CFPB from the ground up and, as a senator, has overseen a broad swath of similar federal regulatory agencies.
Appointments will be key to implementing her vision. Warren, who has often said that “personnel is policy,” led successful fights to quash the appointments of Wall Street-friendly Obama nominees, including Larry Summers’ bid to chair the Federal Reserve. Her office was also involved in a behind-the-scenes effort to identify progressive candidates for posts in a Hillary Clinton administration.
No one inside or outside of the Warren campaign was able or willing to name specific individuals under consideration for high-level White House posts, but Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a nonprofit organization unaffiliated with Warren’s campaign, said the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Rohit Chopra is the kind of appointee Warren might seek. Chopra, whom Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) recommended for the post, was widely seen as a Warren pick. At the FTC, Chopra has been a strong advocate for consumer rights and pushed for tougher regulation of the Big Tech monopolies. He strenuously objected to the FTC’s recent settlement with Facebook over its privacy breach, arguing that the $5 billion penalty was too weak to be a deterrent. Hauser also expects Warren will search beyond the Beltway for those who have a track record of success, including state and municipal officials who take an aggressive approach toward regulation and enforcement.
Executive orders get more press than other tools at the president’s disposal, but, says Hauser, they tend to move more slowly and are subject to being overturned by the courts. Enforcement priorities, however, are immediately effective. Imagine the difference it would make if the president ordered the Justice Department to stop persecuting immigrants and start aggressively pursuing crooked bankers, polluters and other white-collar criminals instead.
Then there are regulations. In the bowels of every federal agency are countless regulations from the New Deal or the Great Society that sit gathering dust. These regulations protect workers and consumers, enforce civil rights law, promote food safety and clean air and water, enable the feds to bust up monopolies, close tax loopholes, and more. But many such regulations have gone unenforced, beginning with the Reagan revolution and continuing through the neoliberal presidential administrations since.
A Warren administration threatens to resurrect those laws with a vengeance. As a senator, for example, Warren cited an obscure federal law to successfully lobby the Obama administration to provide debt relief for thousands of students ripped off by Corinthian, a for-profit college.
A president’s final tool is the bully pulpit, which Warren can use to educate, persuade and inspire voters to take action. Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which has endorsed Warren, says, “[Warren’s] mentality when she entered the race, at only 3% to 5% in the polls, was, ‘I’m gonna go around the country and educate people about issues like systemic corruption and anti-monopoly. If I lose, at least millions more people are primed to want the right solution to these things. And if I win, we can do stuff.’” A gifted communicator, Warren can explain complex policies in clear, simple language and connect them to voters’ everyday concerns and struggles.
AT THE HEART OF WARREN’S VISION FOR AMERICA is a drive to end policies that benefit corporations and the rich at the expense of working families. She has said her first legislative priority as president would be an anti-corruption package that, once adopted, would facilitate passage of the rest of her agenda by removing the financial incentive for legislators to oppose it. Warren told Ezra Klein that the purpose of banning the revolving door between Congress and lobbying jobs is to say to members of Congress, “Hey, this is your job … so don’t be looking over the horizon at your next job and adjusting your behavior accordingly.”
Next on Warren’s agenda is the wealth tax, which would reduce economic inequality while providing a funding mechanism for other high-priority measures. Warren says her wealth tax would generate enough revenue to cancel 95% of all student debt and fund universal childcare, universal pre-K and free public college.
Some critics point to European countries that have tried and failed to implement a wealth tax, but the economists who advised Warren, Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez, say Warren’s version would be more feasible: It would fall on a smaller share of the population, contain fewer loop holes and come with more aggressive enforcement mechanisms. Economist Max Sawicky suggests Warren could wield the wealth tax as “a political weapon to get other changes,” including more progressive tax enforcement policies, regardless of whether it ends up being enacted.
Warren’s economic agenda includes antitrust policies to break up the banks and Big Tech, stricter executive compensation rules, a crackdown on private equity, higher corporate taxes, and trade policies that meet human rights standards. On the spending side, Warren’s proposals include free two- and four-year public college, the cancellation of 95% of student debt, universal childcare and the expansion of Social Security. The spending items would require legislation, but much of the rest of her economic program could be implemented by the executive branch alone. A president has considerable latitude over trade negotiations and can enforce existing consumer and antitrust laws, thereby cracking down on other corporate abuses. Warren could also use executive orders and existing regulations to ensure more wealthy people are paying their fair share.
Action on climate change is another top priority for Warren. She is a strong supporter of Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) Green New Deal proposal, but goes beyond that. Warren has released 11 climate plans on issues ranging from environmental justice to clean air and water to protecting public lands. The most significant initiative may be her green manufacturing plan, a $2 trillion, 10-year research, development and deployment plan to create new, cheaper technology for clean energy. Warren also adopted Gov. Jay Inslee’s (D-Wash.) plan to achieve 100% clean energy by 2035.
Warren has released healthcare proposals to expand access in rural areas, reduce maternal mortality and end the opioid crisis, but the main item on Warren’s healthcare agenda is Medicare for All—which, of all the items on the progressive agenda, is probably the most difficult to enact.
For one thing, Medicare for All is many times more expensive than any of Warren’s other proposals, with an estimated cost of more than $2 trillion in additional annual spending (her universal childcare and free public college proposals would cost about $70 billion and $60 billion, respectively). It will also require, among other things, liquidating an entire sector of the economy (the health insurance industry); slashing the profits of hospitals and pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies; and reducing the salaries of doctors in highly paid specialties. Taking on all those vested interests will be tough. Indeed, Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill has only 15 Senate cosponsors, some of whom have already begun to back away from it.
Warren’s Medicare for All proposal is a maximalist plan that would make comprehensive healthcare virtually free for everyone, including prescriptions, long-term care, mental health care, dental care and vision care. She would pay for the plan partly through cost savings (by reducing prescription drug and administrative costs and lowering reimbursement rates to hospitals and specialists) and partly through raising revenue (with a wealth tax and an employer tax roughly equal to the current employer contribution to employee health insurance). The purpose of this financing scheme is to make the plan more politically palatable by avoiding big new taxes on working people.
To transition to Medicare for All, Warren proposes a two-stage process. First, she would sign executive orders lowering prices on prescription drugs and strengthening the Affordable Care Act. Then, within the first 100 days of her administration, Congress would pass a bill enacting a robust public healthcare option and expanding Medicare benefits to minors, low-income households and people age 50 and older. In the second stage, in the third year of a Warren administration, the full Medicare for All bill would be enacted.
Warren supporters argue the Senate map for Democrats is more favorable in 2022, and enacting the initial public healthcare option would weaken the insurance industry, making the full bill easier to enact. On the other hand, it could also be the case that starting with a maximalist demand like Medicare for All would make smaller steps, such as a public option, more likely, whereas starting with a demand for only a public option might result in nothing at all.
Immigration reform is another Warren priority and, yes, she has a plan for that. Warren has proposed executive actions to eliminate abusive immigration enforcement, reduce immigrant detention while increasing due process, and admit more refugees. She also backs legislation to create new paths to citizenship.
On labor, Warren supports back-burnered items on the Democratic legislative agenda, such as a $15 minimum wage, “card check” legislation to make unionizing easier and a ban on the permanent replacement of strikers, as well as her own more far-reaching measure that would let workers control 40% of corporate board seats. Through executive actions, Warren also proposes to strengthen enforcement of anti-discrimination and worker safety laws, expand overtime rules, and strengthen the National Labor Relations Board.
On foreign policy, Warren’s record is disappointing. She voted for Trump’s 2018 defense budget, defended Israel when it bombed Palestinian schools, and supported sanctions against Venezuela, Iran and other countries. Despite these missteps, her foreign policy has been improving. She’s become more critical of Israel, voted to end U.S. participation in the Saudi war in Yemen, introduced a no-first-use nuclear weapons bill, and said she would immediately start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. If we as leftists want to make sure she continues to evolve on these issues, it’s critical that we demand accountability and push for progressive foreign policy appointments. She would be well advised to staff her White House with appointees from Bernie Sanders’ excellent foreign policy team.
WARREN HAS A STRONG RECORD OF enlisting bipartisan sponsors for her Senate bills, but it’s likely Republicans would oppose her presidential agenda en masse. Trump is popular with the Republican base, and even out of office he would undoubtedly remain a thorn in her side with a steady stream of insults, smears and conspiracy theories.
Democrats, too, could be a problem. Warren’s support of Medicare for All, her soak-the-rich tax policies, and her plans to break up monopolies and heavily regulate corporations have won her the enmity of neoliberal Democrats in Congress and the billionaires who love them.
Warren’s style has been to fight hard and in a highly visible way and to create public support for her goals and political consequences for those who thwart her. As she said when she was fighting to create the CFPB, “My first choice is a strong consumer agency. My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”
To enact her agenda, Warren could also do what presidents have always done with carrots (such as favors from a federal agency) and sticks (such as supporting primary challengers). But the sources I spoke to believe she would support primarying recalcitrant Democrats only as a last resort, and only against legislators who consistently opposed her policies. In addition, Warren is already working to create the kind of Congress that would support her priorities. She has endorsed a slew of progressive candidates in Democratic primaries, including challengers to two centrist Democratic incumbents, Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois and Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas. Her campaign has also been pouring money into down-ballot races in an effort to elect more progressive Democrats to statehouses and to Congress.
Democratic strategist and Warren supporter Mike Lux predicts Warren “would be as aggressive as any president has ever been at rallying organizations and rallying the netroots. She would come into the White House with a huge email list that I think she would operationalize aggressively to work on Democrats to support bills.”
Meanwhile, institutions like the filibuster, a Senate that disproportionately represents white and rural voters, and the Electoral College all make progressive, transformative change difficult. Warren is supportive of statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, steps that may be doable if the Democrats take control of Congress. She has proposed abolishing the filibuster and the Electoral College, but those reforms would likely be a much heavier lift.
But the most serious procedural threat to a Warren agenda may well be a Supreme Court and federal courts dominated by right-wing appointees who have been consistently hostile to the kind of progressive economic policies Warren champions. Warren has said she is open to such reforms as adding justices to the Supreme Court.
Political backlash poses another major threat. There’s a lively debate among Democrats about whether a midterm backlash is an inevitable, naturally recurring feature of American politics. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama faced a ferocious backlash at the polls in the midterm elections of their first terms, giving an obstructionist GOP control of the House and stalling Democratic agendas for six years.
But Stephanie Taylor, cofounder of the PCCC, says electoral backlash is not a given. “The best way for Democrats to win is to fight for systemic change, not incremental change. And this is what Elizabeth Warren does.” People will vote for Democrats, she says, “if they believe that it will do something about the rigged system, it will do something to put more money in their pockets, do something about their crushing medical debt, foreclosures, student debt.”
A hostile media environment will pose another obstacle for Warren. The mainstream media has repeatedly subjected Warren to sexist slurs (like "schoolmarm"), judged her by sexist double standards (have you heard that she's not likable?), and cast doubts about her candidacy by making sexist electability arguments. Besides sexist bias, Warren also has to contend with the media’s powerful bias against the Left. Her standing in the polls began to suffer when centrist pundits started directing their fire against Warren. In the debates, she has faced harsh “How will you pay for that?” questions about her Medicare for All plan, yet none of the moderators asked her centrist rivals how they plan to deal with the crisis of some 28 million uninsured Americans. Media coverage of her wealth tax has been largely negative, with the media repeatedly elevating the voices of random billionaires who oppose the tax while ignoring the millions of Americans—parents who desperately need child care, students who can't afford to go college, graduates burdened by crushing debt—who would benefit from it.
An aggressive, proactive communications strategy by a Warren administration could blunt the impact of negative media coverage. Hauser says that to the extent Warren’s agenda focuses on executive action rather than legislation, “It will give her an opportunity to potentially control the conversation.” A president whose primary focus is getting legislation passed on Capitol Hill will “necessarily provide Congressional Republicans an enormous microphone.” But, says Hauser, if Warren’s agenda is focused on unleashing the regulatory powers of the executive branch, “the only people who have the microphone will be the various corporate interests getting rolled over by Warren appointees across the government. And I think that those are communications battles the president's much more capable of winning.”
Our country lacks a well-organized Left, perhaps the biggest obstacle of all to progressive, transformative change. Left-wing parties in Europe have an institutional base in strong labor unions, but in the United States, union density is low and the labor movement is weak and not uniformly progressive. Nevertheless, transformative change is, perhaps, possible. In the wake of the Great Recession, we’ve seen a huge upsurge in progressive activism, including Occupy Wall Street, Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, the immigration and climate justice movements, the revival of the Democratic Socialists of America, #MeToo and waves of teacher strikes.
Warren laid out her theory of change most clearly at a September 2019 campaign event in New York. In her speech, Warren referenced the tragic 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to tell a story of change in America: how the fire led to a dramatic upsurge in activism with some half a million people taking to the streets in a union-organized funeral march for the workers. Warren said that “the women of the trade unions kept pushing from the outside” and Frances Perkins, then a labor activist, “pushed from the inside.” Together, they rewrote New York state labor law from top to bottom to protect workers. When she became FDR’s labor secretary, Perkins followed the same model for change. The result, Warren said, was the “big structural change” of the New Deal: “Social Security, unemployment insurance, abolition of child labor, minimum wage, the right to join a union and even the very existence of the weekend.”
Warren sees a clear distinction between social movements pressing for change from the outside and the elected officials (like herself) working the system from within. Warren’s progressive rival, Bernie Sanders, sees the role of the president differently, saying he would act as “organizer-in-chief” to lead a mass movement for change.
But Sanders’ position fails to understand the structural reality of how politics works and what presidents do. Presidents are inside actors; movements are outside actors. Movements exist independently from parties and candidates and draw their power from their ability to extend or withdraw their support at will. The American presidents who have brought about fundamental change (take FDR and the labor movement, or LBJ and the civil rights movement) worked closely with movements, listened to movements, set a tone that encouraged movements, coordinated politically with movements—but did not lead or organize movements.
Sanders, like Warren, clearly appreciates that movements are the motor that drives change, and a Sanders administration, like a Warren administration, would partner with movements to achieve change. Both candidates offer a compelling vision that can inspire people, and both share the goal of orienting America closer to social democracy. While Sanders is to the left of Warren on most issues, that difference is unlikely to matter much in practice (with the important exception of foreign policy) because both would be seriously constrained by a political environment significantly to the right of their proposed agendas.
Warren holds two important advantages over Sanders. The first is her gender. By itself, gender should not be a determining factor. But in two candidates that are as closely matched as Sanders and Warren, gender does come into play. Electing our first female president may be symbolic, but symbols matter. Research suggests that when women run for office, they inspire more women to do the same. Our government is currently ranked 76th in the world on the share of women elected to our national legislature. Studies show that women who are elected to higher office are more likely than men to champion women’s issues such as childcare, reproductive justice, family-friendly labor policies, women’s health and the minimum wage.
Warren’s chief advantage over Sanders, however, is that she is more likely to deliver on the implementation of her proposals. According to the most recent report cards compiled by the independent organization GovTrack, Warren has been more successful than Sanders in introducing legislation, getting cosponsors, getting her bills out of committee and writing bills that became law. Warren also dreamed up, designed and implemented a government agency: the CFPB, which, to date, has provided more than $13 billion in relief to distressed consumers. Sanders has a record he can be deeply proud of, but no comparable legislative achievements. Warren combines a strong strategic sense with an unparalleled understanding of the possibilities of the executive branch. Her skill set is a better match for the job.
Ultimately, of course, one person—even with all the powers of the presidency at her command—can only do so much. Warren would need movements that pressure her to do the right thing and hold her accountable when she falls short. But movements on the Left have been gaining strength. In many ways, Trump’s presidency has been about suppressing an America that is trying to be born. Warren would very much like to midwife the birth of that new America. But only if Americans create social disruption on a mass scale will she have the opportunity to do so.
[KATHLEEN GEIER has written for The Nation, The Baffler and The New Republic. She lives in Chicago.]
The views expressed in this piece are the author's own. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office.
Reprinted with permission from In These Times. All rights reserved.
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