As Elizabeth Warren soon will take up her new job in Washington as a senator from Massachusetts, how will she interact with those who spurned her?
BOSTON — When Elizabeth Warren created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington two years ago and sought to become its director, she was fiercely opposed by Republican senators who feared she loathed financial institutions and would be a thorn in their sides.
President Obama was so convinced she could not win Senate confirmation that he did not even bother to nominate her.
Now, Warren, 63, is returning to Washington as a member of the very club that sought to block her and dilute the power of her consumer bureau. She got there by campaigning against the big banks and lobbyists, the millionaires and billionaires who, she said, rigged the system against the middle class.
The question now: How will she approach her job as the newly elected Democratic senator from Massachusetts? How will she interact with those who spurned her? How can she most effectively fulfill the populist promise of her candidacy while serving in an institution that runs on seniority and prefers deference to defiance?
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She has sent mixed signals. As she thanked her campaign workers in her victory speech on election night, she said: “You took on the powerful Wall Street banks and special interests, and you let them know you want a senator who’ll be out there fighting for the middle class all of the time.”
Shortly thereafter, she spoke of compromise and balance and said she had learned the importance of bipartisanship from her Republican opponent, Sen. Scott Brown.
On Thursday, at her first formal news conference since the election, the normally feisty and loquacious Harvard law professor was about as low-key as she could get without disappearing. She responded to some questions with just a word or two. She would not say what committee assignments she might seek.
Even on the subject of the record number of women in the Senate, a response had to be dragged out of her. (Twenty is better, she said, but not good enough.)
Warren is a quick study, and perhaps she had already learned that campaigning is different from legislating. After the news conference, she told a smaller group of reporters that as a senator she needed to be discreet.
“Listen,” she said, “all I can say is I was a lot more discreet as a candidate than I was in real life.” She then turned to an aide. “Can I say that?” she asked. “Maybe it’s indiscreet to talk about discretion.”
Bankers and Wall Street types might be surprised to hear that during the campaign Warren held herself in check.
“Wall Street CEOs — the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs — still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors and acting like we should thank them,” Warren said in her prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention.
That was the Elizabeth Warren who earned the admiration of millions of people across the country, the one who spoke truth to power and was not worried about sounding indiscreet. And it is what they expect of her now that she has a powerful new platform.
“Elizabeth Warren is a doer,” said Neil Barofsky, who, as the special inspector general for oversight of the bank bailouts, worked with Warren and wrote about her in his book, “Bailout.” He added: “I think she would suffocate if she went down to the Senate and kept her head down and played nice and made compromises.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton is often cited as the model of a national celebrity who came to the Senate, kept her head down, worked hard and built relationships across the aisle.
“Hard edges don’t work very well in the Senate,” Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University and student of the Senate, said of Warren. “Her base regards her, quite justifiably, as a great heroine. But I suspect that MoveOn.org will have unrealistic expectations.”
Warren, speaking last year to New York magazine, rejected the Clinton model.
“If the notion on this is we’re going to elect somebody to the United States Senate so they can be the 100th least senior person in there and be polite, and somewhere in their fourth or fifth year do some bipartisan bill that nobody cares about, don’t vote for me,” she said.
Warren has also written critically of Hillary Rodham Clinton for compromising on a bankruptcy bill that was supported by the financial industry. When she was the first lady, Clinton opposed the bill. But as a senator from New York — when she needed support from Wall Street, a hometown industry — she voted for it.
“She couldn’t afford such a principled position,” Warren wrote. “Campaigns cost money, and that money wasn’t coming from families in financial trouble.”
Warren is not likely to face that particular dilemma. The financial-services sector gave Brown more than $5.5 million to defeat her. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said “no other candidate in 2012 represents a greater threat to free enterprise than Professor Warren.”
But Warren raised $39 million, the most of any Senate candidate this year, proving that it was possible to run against the big banks without Wall Street money and still win.
“She doesn’t need their money,” Barofsky said. “That gives her freedom and independence.”
Once an obscure academic studying bankruptcy law, Warren did not so much court the spotlight as the spotlight courted her, first as one of the nation’s pre-eminent chroniclers of middle-class decline and then as the outspoken head of a House panel overseeing the 2008 Wall Street bailout.
With her rolled-up blazer sleeves and wire-rimmed glasses, she was loved — and reviled — as the wonky, self-described champion of consumers against big-bank interests, often saying that as a tenured Harvard professor, she had little to lose by sticking her neck out.
As she campaigned, Warren remained bold, saying she would not shy from raising taxes on the wealthy or cutting the military budget to pay for education, deficit reduction and other priorities.
She also injected fresh language into the liberal-conservative debate, saying the issue is not big versus small government but rather whose interest government serves.
Wall Street is bracing for Warren to stay true to form.
Christopher Whalen, a senior managing director of Tangent Capital Partners, said on Fox News after the election, “Liz Warren is only one of 100 senators, thank God. She’s kind of an angry Calvinist.”
Warren’s adversaries are said to be trying to keep her off the banking committee, where she could push for more regulation, while her admirers want her to be on it.
“Her strategy will depend on what happens,” said Simon Johnson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.
“If she doesn’t get on the banking committee, then she’ll take a more outspoken approach.” He said that Democrats as a whole had not followed through on several issues of financial reform, so “it matters a great deal” where Warren is assigned.
“Not putting her on banking would make the Democratic Party look like a creature of Wall Street, which, by the way, it is,” Johnson said. “But they don’t like to be too explicit about it.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who helped recruit Warren for the Senate race, sought to deflect criticism that he was doing Wall Street’s bidding and trying to keep her off the banking panel, saying in an interview that he would help her get on whatever committee she wanted.
He predicted she would learn to navigate the Senate because she knows how to adapt, just as she adapted during her campaign to become a better candidate.
“She had a national voice before coming to the Senate, but she will be very respectful of her colleagues,” Schumer said. “She can be a strong voice and, at the same time, be a team player.”
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who worked with Warren when she headed the congressional panel overseeing the bank bailout and in setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said Warren has been on the inside, in a sense, and showed a willingness to compromise when necessary.
“She isn’t just parachuting in. She played a major role in financial reform,” said Frank, who is retiring.
He added: “She is a very effective advocate. She understands avoiding the danger of giving away too much or being so rigid that you don’t get anything.”
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who hosted Warren on his radio show before she became widely known, said she will have to balance a period of learning the ropes with an instinct to jump in.
He said Warren’s deep knowledge of middle-class economics is likely to put her in high demand among Senate colleagues. “She has an area of expertise, which is very, very important right now,” he said, referring to Warren’s work on how health-care costs, credit-card company rules, predatory lending and other features of the American economy squeeze working families.
“She’ll have a role as the go-to person on issues like that.”
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.