Sen. Elizabeth Warren giggles like a girl sought after by the coolest boy in school when asked what she makes of the progressive push for her to "save" liberals from a feared "too-close-to-Wall-Street" presidential run by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016.
But the "Aw shucks, me?" veneer shines with the polish of a practiced politician. Warren is imminently aware of the spotlight she's under and fully cognizant of the fact that the message she sends will be as thoroughly dissected as the Fed chairman talking about the economy.
"My job is here in the Senate," the Massachusetts Democrat said in an interview, waving off the question, rooted to a chair in her Capitol Hill office with towering ceilings.
"I have been fighting for middle-class families for decades and I have a chance here to make a difference and that's what I'm trying to do. And that's what I'm focused on. That's it," she said, adding firmly, "If you need a 'no,' you've got the 'no.' "
In an environment where little legislation is moving on Capitol Hill, particularly in the financial-services/consumer-protection arena where she made her name, Warren is employing her celebrity stature and her Harvard Law assiduity to her benefit.
She set the tone early this year when she famously blasted regulators for treating too-big-to-fail institutions as "too big for trial" in her debut hearing at the Senate Banking Committee. The exchange became her first of many YouTube hits, drawing more than a million viewers in less than a week and simultaneously handing progressive groups a jackpot clip to build a campaign war chest.
Warren is among the least senior members of the Banking Committee, but her words unquestionably draw the most attention, so she takes advantage of that by sticking to pet issues that resonate well with voters and focusing like a laser beam where she sees an opportunity to nudge the debate.
"This is about using the tools to be effective," she said. "There are many tools in the toolbox and I want to use every one of them to help level the playing field for working families."
Although critics on the left and right privately lament that her rabble-rousing performance in hearings appears to be as much about steering outcomes as it is about immortalizing her firebrand reputation, aides on both sides of the aisle acknowledge she appears at least as much workhorse as show horse. She might get her five minutes of fame in sound bites at hearings, but she has the best attendance record of any of the members, including the chairman and ranking member, and routinely stays to the bitter end, long after the cameras have stopped rolling.
Warren also has the distinction of being a rare freshman who is the senior senator from her state. She knocked off incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., in November and then, when former Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., resigned to become secretary of State in February, Warren jumped from junior to senior after less than a month in the Senate.
As the brainchild behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, a former leader of the Congressional Oversight Panel formed in the wake of the controversial $700 billion financial-industry bailout known as TARP, and a former bankruptcy-law professor, she is clearly well-seasoned in financial policy.
Warren might not have any obvious single-handed successes to point to since she took office in January, but she has kept steady pressure on the left not to go soft on reining in Wall Street and has sought to hold those in power accountable.
Her efforts are credited with helping bring down the White House's pursuit of Lawrence Summers for Federal Reserve Board chairman and cementing Richard Cordray's confirmation as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau without letting Republicans weaken the agency's power.
"I pushed hard on this," she said of the CFPB, "because it really matters to me and I'm glad a lot of people got involved."
She was a vocal advocate for keeping student-loan interest rates low. She offered a bill that would tie such rates to the rates banks receive when borrowing from the Fed. The bill appeared intended to pick a fight about why big banks receive special government treatment.
Most notably, however, Warren is viewed as lighting a fire under regulators to demand meatier settlements with the financial industry. She points with pride to the Securities and Exchange Commission's announcement in June that it would require institutions to admit wrongdoing in certain settlements.
"Regulators have a lot of discretion … and it's sort of always pushing in the same way, always pushing to see the rules weaken.… It's necessary to make sure there is pushback against that and that's part of what I want to do from the Banking Committee," Warren said.
"Those settlements only work if they are backed up by a credible threat that the government is willing and able to go to trial and that's what this has done and we have seen the needle move this way."
For now, Warren's voice might be her mightiest tool.
"I try to talk about the things where it is possible to make a difference. That's what I'm focused on," she said.
This article appears in the October 7, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.