When Elizabeth Warren announced her Senate candidacy in September 2011, President Obama had just signed into law the Budget Control Act, which raised the debt ceiling but also made concessions to Republicans that would eventually lead to $1 trillion in sequestration cuts. Deficit control was a top priority for both parties, and something that Obama pledged to continue to pursue in a rare address to a joint session of Congress that month on his jobs plan.
But the speech Obama gave last week to a similar joint session of Congress felt very different. His 2014 State of the Union address brushed over deficit reduction quickly before getting onto the main event: a pledge to create "opportunity for all," infused with the themes that Warren rode to Washington a little over a year ago.
After that speech, any doubt about whether the Democratic Party would embrace economic populism can now be put to rest. The party is united behind an agenda that puts economic inequality front-and-center, and they think voters will reward them for it. Warren did not move the needle alone, and perhaps was just a leading indicator of these changing winds, but her once-insurgent message has now become mainstream in the party, albeit with some edges sanded off.
"The two big themes coming out of President Obama's speech are economic populism and a new willingness to fight. President Obama is basically taking steps to sound more and more like Elizabeth Warren," says Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an outside group that backed Warren's Senate campaign.
The party has shifted noticeably to the left on economic issues, said Neera Tanden, the president of the center-left Center for American Progress. "Economic populism is a uniting force in the Democratic Party and progressive movement, and will help draw a contrast with Republicans in 2014 and future cycles," she said.
What's changed? Part of it is that Obama finally realized Republicans were unlikely to be very fruitful negotiating partners, freeing him to speak his mind without fear of damaging bipartisan deal-making. Meanwhile, macro-economic trends toward greater inequality continue apace, as Democratic-leaning demographic groups expand in size and voting power.
And as the economy has improved, and deficits have fallen, voters care less about cutting spending. According to a Pew poll released last week, 63 percent of Americans see reducing the budget deficit as a top priority, down 9 points from a year ago. That places the issue below five other policy goals, from fighting terrorism to improving education. It's the first time that number has slipped since Obama took office in 2009.
At a meeting with liberal writers last week, House Democratic leaders expressed unity on Obama's State of the Union message, and said they felt confident their populist-infused message would resonate with voters. The focus of the rest of 2014, said Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is simple: "To create opportunities for people."
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said her party would focus on legislation this year aimed at closing what she called "the opportunity gap." That acknowledged that few bills are likely to advance past the Republican "brick wall" in the House, but failures will still help highlight what each party stands for, she said.
Pelosi and other members pointed to priority legislation such as raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits, as well as a wish list of ideas like universal prekindergarten, greater college affordability, paid sick leave for workers, a gender pay-equity law, and an updated voting rights act. It's an agenda that fits neatly under the "opportunity" umbrella.
The message also takes some of the edge off of Warren's more confrontational rhetoric, which conservatives often deride as "class warfare." ("No other candidate in 2012 represents a greater threat to free enterprise than Professor Warren," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's political director said during the campaign.)
While Warren's message is aimed at the failings of the super wealthy, the "opportunity" message turns the lens around and offers to give a "ladder of opportunity" for people to move into higher socioeconomic strata.
And that's something that broad swaths of the party seem ready to embrace. From purple-state governors to red-state senators such as Arkansas' Mark Pryor, many Democrats have lined up to support a hike in the minimum wage ahead of tough reelection battles. The logic isn't too hard to see: Despite business group's objections, it's an idea 71 percent of Americans support, according to a December National Journal poll.
None of this necessarily makes Warren herself the leader of the party. But ideas are often more powerful than people, and there's little doubt that the ones she helped elevate are now driving the party.