WASHINGTON — Richard Cordray, the former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was at home in Ohio in the spring of 2021 when he got an intriguing call from Senator Elizabeth Warren. Would he, she asked, be interested in an obscure but powerful job at the Department of Education, running student aid programs?
“I wasn’t that familiar with the position,” Cordray said in an interview. But, “she was persuasive that it would be a job worth taking.”
Meanwhile, Warren talked Cordray up to the White House and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. The eventual hiring of her old friend, announced that May, gave Warren a key ally in her decade-long effort to make nuts-and-bolts, borrower-friendly changes to the way the federal government services student loans — and now it’s paying off.
“That whole system,” Warren said in an interview, “has now changed.”
The Cordray hire, and the reforms he has overseen, is an example of the way Warren has used her influence within the Biden administration and on Capitol Hill to further her policy goals, notching quiet wins in recent months on everything from tax policy to judicial nominees to antitrust enforcement. Her early years in Washington and in the Senate were marked by a relentless activism that, at times, drew the ire of her own party leaders. But now, with a willing partner in the White House and a network of allies she helped place across the administration, Warren has achieved what her advisers believe to be the most impactful period of her Senate career.
“She . . . really understands how to work the inside game, how to work with her colleagues on the Hill, how to work with us at the White House. She’s unbelievably effective in doing that,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said, calling Warren “a close and important ally of our administration.”
Warren has a good relationship with Biden himself — he called to thank her for an op-ed she placed in The New York Times last month praising his policies for boosting Democrats in the midterms, for example — and speaks often with Klain, who showered her with praise in an interview with The Boston Globe.
It’s a shift from her sometimes-combative relationship with former president Barack Obama, and one that has helped reap rewards in the currency most dear to her: good policy.
“A lot of good things finally landed in the past few years, some of them that I’ve been working on for more than a decade, some of them that were more opportunistic, because a window opened up,” Warren said during a wide-ranging interview in her Senate office. “It’s been an astonishing two years.
In the Globe interview, Warren spoke more candidly than in the past about her efforts to seed the Biden administration with allies including Cordray and to draw on her relationships across the executive branch, painting a picture of a politician who has deftly pulled the levers of power in Washington and played an intricate inside game while staying true to her activist reputation.
“I still don’t think of myself as an insider,” Warren said. “I think of myself as someone who came here to get some very specific things done.”
That is not to say everything has come easily. Even as judges with more diverse backgrounds and legal experience are nominated to the federal judiciary, a key priority of hers, she’s had to push the White House to stand behind some of her and Senator Ed Markey’s picks. And while Biden’s decision to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt per borrower was another significant victory, it took more than a year of lobbying by Warren and others to convince the White House it was legal and politically advisable.
US Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston described how she and Warren worked together to dispel the notion that debt cancellation would only help upper-class, rather than working-class, Americans.
“The White House was saying that we’re not sure this is even an issue for labor because we’re not hearing from them,” said Pressley. “It’s moments like that when you really see Senator Warren really dig in and click in.”
Warren is quick to tick off other key White House advisers with whom she says she speaks, including Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, and Cecilia Rouse, Biden’s chief economist. And she spoke of how she recommended her allies for important jobs in the administration. Those include Bharat Ramamurti, her former policy adviser who is now Deese’s deputy, and key figures in the administration’s antitrust enforcement efforts: the Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter, the Department of Justice’s top antitrust official.
“When President Biden won, one of my highest priorities was to get Lina and Jonathan into the roles where they can start using antitrust laws again — personnel is policy,” Warren said, referencing a favorite adage. “That’s what happened.”
Klain said that when Warren recommends a hire, the White House listens — “We take her recommendations very seriously” — but they also make it clear where they do not align.
“She’s someone who I can say, ‘Look, you want us to do ABC, that’s not where the president is,’” he said. “She’ll listen to our point of view, too.”
One high-profile defeat for Warren came when Biden nominated Jerome Powell to chair the Federal Reserve for a second term despite her strenuous, and public, objections. And key pieces of her agenda, including expanded national child care, withered in Congress due to opposition from her fellow Democrats and face little chance of passage in a divided Congress — although she says she isn’t giving up.
“We will make change by making the universal child-care issue visible nationally, building those coalitions on the outside and the inside, very much like we’re doing with student loan debt,” Warren said.
Watchdogs say the federal government has been tougher on corporate mergers and other enforcement issues since Kanter and Khan took their roles — and that these personnel decisions will help to fuel continued, Warren-friendly change even in an era of divided government. Warren, herself, will also hold greater oversight power in the new Congress. Thanks to Senator Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia, Senate Democrats will now have subpoena power.
“We’re about to enter a time when productive legislating is going to be far less likely, and most meaningful policy making is going to take place in the executive branch,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a group opposed to concentrated corporate power. “Because people who are in her orbit have come to helm these agencies like the FTC or the CFPB or are running antitrust at DOJ, we can have confidence that important work on antitrust will move forward in the next couple of years.”
Ideas that began as speeches — on the need for professionally diverse judicial nominees in 2013, or antitrust enforcement in 2016 — and turned into Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign platform formed the backbone of much of what she has been able to accomplish, showing how these ideas have succeeded while her campaign failed at the ballot box.
“If you don’t get to be president,” one adviser said, “that doesn’t mean you don’t get to fix the problems.”
During that campaign, she called for the taxing of large corporations based on the revenue they announce to their shareholders — something that laid the groundwork for the corporate minimum tax, which she lobbied lawmakers such as Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema to sign onto as a key revenue raise in the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed this summer on a party line vote.
“We passed the first corporate tax increase in 30 years. And we had all the money that made possible all of the climate reduction provisions,” Warren said, crediting Maine Senator Angus King, an independent who worked on the provision with her.
In the past, Warren has sometimes been loath to draw attention to her personnel or behind-the-scenes wins, not wanting to draw Republican opposition to them. Asked why she wanted to do so now, Warren said she is trying to “lock in the change.”
“I don’t want people to go backwards,” she said.
Publicly, Warren is adamant that she plans to run for a third term in the Senate and support a Biden reelection bid in 2024. Her eagerness to highlight her achievements could fuel new speculation about her future plans — and former top political aides such as Roger Lau and Kristen Orthman, who are now high-ranking operatives at the Democratic National Committee, would be well positioned to help her should she decide to run for president again. She was deeply engaged in national politics during the midterms, traveling widely to boost candidates in swing states including Wisconsin and urging her party to tweak its messaging on the economy.
And, when asked, she did not dismiss the idea there might be other positions from which she could achieve her policy goals, beyond senator, although she did not say what those could be.
“I continue to be so grateful for the opportunities I get to make change, and for the help I can give other people working on change, to boost them up and see what they can do,” Warren said. “By the way, that’s true in and out of government.”
But one place she won’t go is into the Biden administration — at least according to Klain.
“Not because of any disagreement or defect,” he said, before making a reference to the Democrats’ narrow, 51-vote majority. “But we need Elizabeth Warren in the Senate.”