From a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus to an attempted mass forgiveness of student loans, the Democrats’ agenda over the past two years has been much more progressive compared with 2009-2010, the last time the party controlled both Congress and the White House. A lot of factors and people drove that leftward shift, the most important being Joe Biden, who won the presidency and made these policies happen. But other than Biden, the politician most responsible for this new and improved Democratic governance is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).
Warren created a wide-ranging progressive agenda, built support for it across the party and the country, and helped fill the government and outside groups with allies who are helping her push it forward. That is an impressive trifecta, particularly considering that Warren not only isn’t the president but also isn’t the Democratic leader of either house of Congress or even the chair of a major committee.
Many Biden administration policies are versions of ideas Warren pushed either in her Senate office or her 2020 presidential campaign: a minimum 15 percent tax that higher-earning corporations must pay based on the profits they report to shareholders; the loan cancellation; a crackdown on mergers of big companies in the same industry; an “industrial policy” aimed at producing microchips and other modern economic necessities in the United States rather than abroad; abortions being conducted in veterans hospitals in states where they are otherwise limited; the sale of hearing aids over the counter without a prescription; the appointments of more public interest lawyers and fewer corporate attorneys to federal judgeships.
This is not the Warren presidency, but it’s certainly a Warren-infused presidency.
“I am so grateful to President Biden for being willing to listen to ideas. He didn’t adopt every one of them that I advocated for, but he’s been open,” Warren told me in an interview this month over Zoom.
Warren wasn’t alone on these issues. Left-wing organizations, activists and other members of Congress were pushing in the same direction. The role of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) has been particularly important. The Democrats’ newfound progressivism probably doesn’t happen without the Vermont senator’s 2016 presidential campaign, which reignited the party’s left wing.
But Warren’s ideas — whether her own, or ones she has amplified from the broader Democratic left — have been more frequently translated into policy than Sanders’s.
The Massachusetts senator, an expert in bankruptcy law before entering politics, is most influential and prescient on economic policy. For example, she was warning more than a year ago that the cryptocurrency industry was a potential financial bubble. But on noneconomic issues, too, she has been an early adopter of stances that later became more mainstream in the Democratic Party, such as impeaching then-President Donald Trump, getting rid of the filibuster and creating a federal right to an abortion.
“My team is less about folks who have a lot of political experience and more about people who really know a subject area. So I’ve had microbiologists, sociologists, people with advanced degrees in education, tax specialists. … People who came to it, maybe not knowing a lot about Capitol Hill, but knowing a lot about the problem in the area they’ve studied,” Warren said.
But it’s not just that Warren has lots of ideas. What goes less noticed is how shrewd she is at the politics of advancing her agenda. From the moment she entered the Senate in 2013, she has been fixated on presidential appointments, popularizing the mantra that “personnel is policy.” When Barack Obama was in office, Warren successfully organized opposition to potential appointees who she felt were insufficiently progressive, most notably former treasury secretary (and current Post contributing columnist) Lawrence H. Summers’s bid to become chair of the Federal Reserve. Looking to avoid such fights, Biden has generally avoided nominating people for key posts whom Warren and other progressives would object to.
Her work on student loan cancellation is another illustration of her political savvy. (Even if the Supreme Court invalidates the broad forgiveness program, the Biden administration has already forgiven billions of dollars through smaller loan cancellations that were done because of prodding from Warren and the party’s left wing.) She has consistently emphasized that Black Americans who have attended college on average have higher debt burdens and lower incomes compared with college-going White Americans. Casting debt cancellation as a racial inequality issue was smart, because the Democratic Party is dominated by a center-left wing skeptical of progressives like Warren but eager to show its support for Black causes. Once Biden was elected, Warren joined forces with powerful Black figures in the party, most notably Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (Ga.), to push the issue.
Warren also emphasized that loan forgiveness was popular with the public, particularly with younger voters whom Democrats needed in the midterms. That was typical Warren. While she is often cast by the party’s centrists as proposing overly liberal ideas that will annoy moderate voters, Warren in fact tends to fixate on issues where she is aligned with popular opinion. For example, drastically increasing taxes on the wealthy, as Warren has repeatedly called for, is very popular with voters but not with major party donors.
Tact is also part of her broader strategy. In pushing for loan cancellation, Warren was relentless, constantly doing interviews and tweets calling for Biden to take action. But she never criticized the president directly. She has sharply attacked some of Biden’s appointees, most notably more centrist figures such as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. But she keeps strong ties with Biden in part by rarely publicly rebuking the president.
“Even where there are areas of disagreement, she has been generously supportive of what the president is trying to get done — which has been critical to the president’s success,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told me in an email message. He added, “She is a true thought leader in our party, and combines that with a relentless determination to turn those policy thoughts into action.”
The third key to Warren’s success is her network building. She hires ambitious staffers, gives them a platform to be creative and encourages them to depart for bigger roles. She endorses progressive candidates in local, state and federal races, looking to build allies at all levels of government. And Warren is regularly doing interviews with left-wing journalists, giving speeches at progressive think tanks and personally calling activists on the issues that she is working on.
So when the senator is trying to get one of her ideas adopted, she can call people in government but also create public pressure that forces them to act. “The inside and the outside, you’ve got to do them both,” she says.
You might be thinking that Warren can’t be that great at politics — after all, she ran for president in 2020 and finished well behind Biden and Sanders. There were certainly some bad moments in her presidential campaign, particularly Warren’s struggles to define a clear position on Medicare-for-all.
Even so, her campaign was a great success in highlighting national problems, such as corporations not paying taxes, and thereby effectively forcing the next Democratic president to address them. Yes, she was trying to win the primary. But she also wanted to come up with ideas that resonated with Democratic voters and changed the party’s policy trajectory even if she wasn’t the nominee. And that’s exactly what she did.
With Republicans soon to be in control of the House, Democrats in Washington won’t be able to pass big legislation as they did in 2021-2022. But even with that limitation, Warren has tons of ideas that could be implemented through the executive branch, the Democratic-controlled Senate or at the local and state level — and she has the relationships and savvy to get them adopted.
Warren didn’t become the president. But she has shaped a presidency.