Senator Elizabeth Warren, the champion of Main Street versus Wall Street, just got another boost to the presidential campaign she said she isn’t running.
It lies in the $13 billion deal that JP Morgan Chase reached with the US Justice Department. The settlement, which ends the government's probe into the bank's risky mortgage business, reportedly represents the largest amount a single company has ever committed to pay Uncle Sam. That's significant — but so is the bank's unusual admission that it failed to disclose the risks of buying its mortgage securities.
Warren was a force in both aspects of JP Morgan's day of reckoning. After the economic collapse of 2008 — and before her election as senator — Warren led the charge for Wall Street accountability while overseeing the government response to the banking crisis. As senator from Massachusetts, she continues to push for down-in-the-weeds results and isn't shy about acknowledging her role in achieving them. In September, Warren told The Daily Beast that her lobbying of Mary Jo White, the newly installed chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, played a key role in getting government regulators to require more companies to admit wrongdoing, not just pay fines — which is what happened in JP Morgan's case.
The JP Morgan headlines play out as the stock market surges and unemployment ticks up. The gap between America's rich and poor is growing bigger. The divide creates an opening for a Democrat who speaks to the shrinking middle class, as well as to those already squeezed out of it.
Warren could be that candidate, if she chooses. The buzz about a White House run got louder after The New Republic's Noam Scheiber cast her as Hillary Clinton's "nightmare" populist opponent. As she completes her first year in office, Warren and various representatives insist she isn't running for president. But denials won't stop the pundits, or former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, from putting her in the 2016 mix. Frank told the Globe that if Clinton doesn't run, Warren is a strong contender.
And she is, with or without Clinton in the race.
Warren's rhetoric and record give her credibility and a passionate constituency. She doesn't just talk about taking on Wall Street, she does it. And as she does it, she has the presence and social media savvy to turn a speech into a YouTube sensation. In 2008, the now-disgraced presidential candidate John Edwards recognized the liberal appeal of highlighting "the two Americas." Today, the contrast between those two nations is ever starker, making the theme even more attractive. Put in the hands of an accomplished advocate like Warren, this platform creates a high degree of political karma — the kind that Barack Obama, another freshman senator turned unexpectedly strong presidential contender, would appreciate. And Warren is willing to take him on, too.
She criticized President Obama's compromise plan for lowering student loan interest rates, arguing that it isn't right for the federal government to make money off of college kids. She lost the battle and vote, but was right on principle. Warren was one of the first Democrats to call out Obama for the disasterous rollout of the Affordable Care Act. While supporting the product, she stated the obvious: the administration "dropped the ball" on implementation.
She also played a major role in breaking up Obama's bromance with Larry Summers, zooming in on the former Treasury secretary's Wall Street ties and letting the White House know she would work actively to derail his candidacy. As a result, Janet Yellen, not Summers, is Obama's choice to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank. But Warren's support for Yellen didn't stop her from asking Yellen at her confirmation hearing whether the Fed is devoting enough resources to regulating the largest banks.
And she isn't entirely satisfied with the $13 billion deal with JP Morgan, because of the possibility that $9 billion of it may be tax deductible. She opposes the tax deduction and she and four other senators co-signed a letter asking the Department of Justice to clarify what will happen.
Her willingness to speak the truth about Wall Street and the White House is one source of her power. Her ability to create change is another reason to believe in her.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.