It’s Elizabeth Warren’s Party. Barack Obama Is Just Living in It.

Any doubts about whether the Democratic Party would embrace Warren’s economic populism can now be put to rest.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 18: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) speaks during a presser to announce his nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray (not pictured) as head of the in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (L), and Special Advisor on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Elizabeth Warren (C) listen in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 18, 2011 in Washington, DC. The new bureau was created under a reform bill last year and intends to make basic financial practices such as taking out a mortgage or loan more clear and transparent to consumers while weeding out unfair lending practices. 
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Feb. 4, 2014, midnight

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.

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