Elizabeth Warren has Obama on the defense

President Barack Obama leaned in to kiss then-candidate Elizabeth Warren during a 2012 campaign fund-raiser in Boston.
President Barack Obama leaned in to kiss then-candidate Elizabeth Warren during a 2012 campaign fund-raiser in Boston.AP/File/Associated Press

Ever since Barack Obama spoke the words “You’re likeable enough, Hillary” during the 2008 primary season, his weakness for being irked by rivals has been a recurring theme.

It arose anew after he referred in an interview to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Elizabeth” and suggested that her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership is motivated by — horrors! — politics.

Warren, said Obama, is “absolutely wrong” to oppose it, adding, “The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else.”

Obama was called out by Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio for being “disrespectful.” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said that Obama’s “clear subtext is that the little lady just doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”


That’s silly. It would be sexist if it only reflected Obama’s attitude toward women like Warren or Hillary Clinton. But it doesn’t. After all, Obama also lets it be known when he doesn’t think men know what they’re talking about either.

After Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently declared that if he is elected president, he would revoke any nuclear agreement with Iran, Obama said in an interview with NPR, “It would be a foolish approach to take, and perhaps Mr. Walker — after he’s taken some time to bone up on foreign policy — will feel the same way.”

It was clear the president had little use for the Republican governor’s thoughts on international affairs — any more than he has for Warren’s on trade. But the president can’t dismiss a fight from within his own party as easily as he can dismiss one from a Republican. Instead, he should take some lessons from Warren.

Unlike Obama, Warren knows how to sell her agenda to the press and public, and she’s not giving up on her fight over the trade bill.

Last week, Warren embarrassed the president by convincing fellow Democrats to join a filibuster against Obama’s request for authority to pursue the agreement. It was a temporary victory, since the Senate subsequently voted to begin debate on the bill.


On Monday, Warren released a report highlighting what she describes as “more than two decades of failed enforcement by the United States of labor and environmental standards included in past free trade agreements.”

She’s waging this battle on substance, not rhetoric. How is Obama waging it? By calling her a politician. Someone is also putting out the narrative that Warren chiefly represents union interests and that she is getting credit she doesn’t deserve for taking on this policy matter.

Obama is clearly annoyed by this fight from the left wing of his own party. But it should not surprise him, especially since it is being waged by Warren.

These two have history between them, not all of it sweet, as she makes clear in her book “A Fighting Chance.” She chronicles her effort to develop a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect citizens from predatory bankers, and Obama’s subsequent decision to choose someone else to head it. During an Oval Office meeting, she recalls him greeting her “with a cheerful, ‘Elizabeth!’ and a familiar hug even though we had met only a handful of times before.” He tells her she should head up the agency, but explains the problem is resistance from Republicans and bankers. “You make them very nervous,” he tells her.

Now she’s making a president and fellow Democrat more than nervous. She has the Obama administration on the defense, while she owns the label of fighter for the middle class and all the power of persuasion that goes with that.


It’s time for a presidential charm offensive, not another attack of presidential condescension.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.


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