WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren once bragged about being a “thorn” in the Obama administration’s side, a populist outsider who sparred with its key economic officials and sometimes broke publicly with the president.
When it comes to the Biden administration, she may be more of a voice in an ear.
President Biden, who ran as a moderate, is staffing his administration with numerous Warren-aligned figures who are delighting the left — a group of hires that includes at least four of her former campaign or Senate staffers and some key proteges and allies. Even though Warren herself was passed over for high-profile roles like vice president or Treasury secretary, the appointments are one sign that some of her policy goals could come to fruition during her erstwhile rival’s presidency, and that, more broadly, her views will have ongoing influence.
“I always said I would throw a parade if people adopted my plans,” Warren said in an interview. “There’s a lot of indication in fact — think about it — they already have.”
Warren has a steadfast belief that “personnel is policy” and tried to nudge President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to pick her preferred people. She has been personally in contact with Biden, she said, and their aides have also forged lines of communication. Warren did not elaborate on those conversations, but a person familiar with them said Warren privately advocated for multiple people she would like to see join the administration in discussions with Biden’s team, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
“Look, I don’t agree with everyone, but I’m happy with others,” Warren said. She acknowledged this much: “I make my opinions known. I am not shy.”
Nearly a year after her presidential campaign came to an end, Warren is also poised to be more powerful in the Senate, which her party narrowly controls. She has joined the Senate Finance Committee. And she has teamed up with Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to pressure Biden to take executive action to cancel student loan debt, something she said she has also discussed with him directly; White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said this week that the administration is reviewing its options.
But, while less public and obvious, her apparent fingerprints on the Biden administration’s staffing may be the most significant sign of her increasing sway. They show how, 12 years after she first arrived in Washington in the throes of a different economic crisis, Warren is positioned to play more of an insiders’ role in her dealings with a White House — and a Democratic establishment — that sees the world more like she does than have previous administrations. If her familiarly sharp public criticisms of the D.C. status quo are now more muted, she has every reason to hold her fire.
“I hope we never get there,” Warren said.
Biden has staffed up with some loyalists who have corporate ties, and there are many jobs left to fill. But left-leaning groups say they have been pleasantly surprised so far as the executive branch shapes up — and not just the picks with clear ties to Warren. Gone are the days of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, influential members of Obama’s economic team whom Warren and the left believed were too close to Wall Street. In now are economists like Yellen and Cecilia Rouse, key Biden nominees who are seen as more progressive and friendlier to the financial priorities of workers. Rouse has been nominated to be Biden’s top economist.
Choices like these are a victory for Warren’s wing of the party whether they are directly due to its influence or more a function of the Democratic Party’s general shift left. They also stem from Biden’s own populist proclivities and the lessons of the Great Recession, which was followed by a slow recovery that experts believe would have been boosted with more government intervention.
“We are in a situation where progressive, populist economic values and ideas are being driven from the top,” said Damon Silvers, the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO labor union.
Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat who is close to Biden, said that the president has been listening to Warren.
“President Biden wants a really good team that reflects a broad range of skills and backgrounds,” Coons said. “I think he’s listened to her, respected her views and worked with the staff that she brought to the table, and came away impressed.”
Progressives say that, beyond Biden’s specific picks, Warren’s “personnel is policy” adage has helped to shape their overall approach to lobbying the executive branch, as groups like Data for Progress, Progressive Change Institute, and the Revolving Door Project prepared dossiers of worthy candidates for Biden to consider, and advocated around obscure but important jobs.
“It is rare to see someone who did not end up winning the presidential primary to exert this much influence over staffing,” said Sean McElwee, a cofounder of Data for Progress. “You see it because she has done the hard, slow work of remaking the Democratic policy ecosystem, remaking it in her image.”
Warren and Biden clashed bitterly as rivals during the primary, with Warren claiming he was too incremental a leader who wouldn’t meet the moment. In the general election, Biden adopted several elements of her policy plans on bankruptcy, Social Security, and rebuilding the economy.
But the fact that members of the web of staff and allies she has carefully cultivated — a network some in Washington compare to that of the late Senator Ted Kennedy — are making their way into Biden’s administration could give her more influence in his orbit.
“It’s a very smart political move to have that level of engagement and make sure you have people all over the government who you know,” said Ann O’Leary, who was co-director of Hillary Clinton’s transition effort before the 2016 election and the subject of intensive personnel-related urging by Warren.
Warren’s former assistant director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Rohit Chopra, has been nominated by Biden to run the agency. Her former chief of staff there, Wally Adeyemo, was appointed deputy Treasury secretary. Both also held other roles in the Obama administration. At least four of her former presidential campaign aides — Bharat Ramamurti, Sasha Baker, Maggie Thomas, and Julie Siegel — are moving into administration roles where they will deal with economic, climate, or foreign policy.
A longtime Warren ally who also worked for the Obama administration, Gary Gensler, has been nominated to run the Securities and Exchange Commission, and several more appointees ideologically aligned with her have key posts on the White House’s National Economic Council and in obscure but influential government perches.
“Joe Biden has shown from his early appointments that he understands that big economic policies will determine the success of his presidency,” said Heather McGhee, board chair of the racial justice group Color of Change.
Warren has plenty of company in the push for progressive appointees. The youth-powered Sunrise Movement advocated for Interior Secretary nominee Representative Deb Haaland — Warren’s presidential campaign co-chair — and has praised Biden’s other picks for climate and energy jobs. Progressive groups and activists have also cheered on lesser-known choices like the US Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, and other picks at the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget.
“Warren helped galvanize a real shift in how progressives viewed the executive branch,” said Jeff Hauser, of the Revolving Door Project, a public interest group that monitors the executive branch. “In 2008, progressives sort of left the executive branch alone, not necessarily realizing how their absence was going to affect public policy over the years.”
During the Obama administration Warren publicly fought with Geithner, who was Treasury secretary, and helped to sink one of Obama’s nominees through public pressure. By 2015, her chief of staff, Dan Geldon, was meeting with Clinton’s aides to make personnel recommendations in advance of Clinton’s expected presidential run; the following year, Warren was on the phone with O’Leary and Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, to make those pitches herself.
“She didn’t want to just see a bunch of Goldman Sachs people recycled into the government, and she had some people that I think she was very strongly supportive of,” Podesta said. He was used to hearing from prominent Democrats about a single hiring recommendation or policy, but Warren stood out for her more sweeping approach.
Outside groups like the Roosevelt Institute worked in parallel with Warren in 2016 and continued to develop those efforts in 2020.
For now, Warren seems happy with what she’s seeing — and if she’s not, she isn’t saying so publicly.
“I do my commenting,” she said, “to the transition team and the president.”