Warren and Obama: It Got Messy

Listen to this episode

S1: So Alex I’m gonna I’m gonna read you a list of adjectives from this profile. You wrote back in September. Yeah. Sanctimonious condescending narcissist professional critic.

S2: Who are these adjectives describing those adjectives are describing Senator Elizabeth Warren and they are all attributed to former Obama administration officials and Treasury officials.

S3: Alex Thompson writes for Politico where he covers the Elizabeth Warren campaign.

S2: I was on the beat in March and so I was actually calling around people that I worked with her. But it was literally my first call to a former Treasury official who just unloaded the Obama administration is where Elizabeth Warren the politician was born.

S4: I mean it’s been a decade and there’s still there’s there’s still angry there’s still so mad. And I was even taken aback at how visceral the anger was at times.

S5: It’s funny because Warren says on the campaign trail all the time how grateful she is to President Obama. She said it just this past week at the presidential debate.

S4: Yes. I mean that gratitude is sincere. But it’s also a shield to sort of paper over all these other very acrimonious and very fundamental differences between her and the Obama administration. I mean the thing is that they really a large swath of the entire Obama administration not just disliked her but but really hated her.

S5: So after making all those phone calls Alex did what any good campaign reporter would do. He sat down with a candidate asked what she thought about the White House staffers calling her a sanctimonious condescending narcissist.

S6: I I repeated some of the phrases to Elizabeth and I was like but it’s also worth noting that none of these people would put their name on it.

S4: They’re all there on background. And she sort of indicates well you know why. And I I just suggest I was like what because they think you might win. And she didn’t disagree or agree she just let that sit there. You know I think there’s something to be said that they feel angry but they also think that she might win. So they didn’t want to potentially piss off the next president. Today on the show.

S3: What pisses people off when it comes to Elizabeth Warren the frustration some in the Obama White House seem to have with the newly minted Democratic frontrunner. Alex is gonna tell us where that frustration comes from and why right now it seems to be resurfacing.

S7: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S5: Last week. Alex Thompson was at the Democratic presidential debate where he couldn’t help but notice the way many of the candidates were starting to focus in on the new frontrunner Elizabeth Warren. They took issue with her stance on health care on regulating the Internet. And then there was this one moment in particular where Amy Klobuchar brushed off Warren’s controversial tax plan.

S8: But I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires. We just have different approaches.

S3: Your idea is not the only idea and the annoyance include Shah’s voice that idea that somehow Warren seems to think she knows better than everyone else.

S5: It was familiar to Alex because it’s exactly the kind of criticism he’s been hearing from people who used to work with Warren under President Obama. So he went back to tell Warren’s political origin story.

S4: I found this time period of her life fascinating for a lot of reasons but one of the main reasons was that she was selected for this completely powerless Oversight Panel for the TARP bailout.

S3: Quick reminder Warren came to prominence leading an obscure congressional oversight panel after the financial crash of 2008.

S4: But the panel if you actually read the legislation it really only had one power which was it was tasked with writing a monthly report and it could hold hearings as well but it couldn’t subpoena witnesses. So you know it’s really sort of a useless thing. But she managed to make this obscure panel headed by a Harvard law professor that most people never heard of. I’m into this national bully pulpit a populist rage you know and in some ways I think filled a bit of a void that the Obama administration have left open by choosing not to engage in such populist rhetoric.

S5: Mm hmm. Well let’s talk about your article because I read it and in your telling I thought about Elizabeth Warren in a new way I thought about her as kind of a progressive Newt Gingrich. And I’ll explain why. Which is she had this issue which was economic security for Americans getting people out of bankruptcy and she had tried advocating for it in a lot of different ways after the financial crisis. She gets tapped to get into the political fray which she’d done before a little bit but this was new. And then the same way that Newt Gingrich sort of saw C-SPAN and recognized its power I felt like Elizabeth Warren recognized the power of YouTube and media more generally and just sort of went for it. Do you agree with that assessment.

S4: I mean I think it is underappreciated how media savvy she was and I think she became media savvy sort of as a as a method of last resort because she didn’t have much power. You know she very much you know the panel had the power was tasked with writing a report every month. You know that month the report became a monthly media tour. She would start out you know at around 5:00 a.m. I aid would come to the hotel she was staying at and bring her an Egg McMuffin and start at 5:00 am go to NPR go to Fox and Friends. She’d appear Michael Moore documentaries basically anyone and everyone that wanted to talk she would talk to and often was you know I think they realized that Fox and Friends wanted her on in part because she was going to bash the administration’s recovery effort. But she didn’t care it was about getting her message out.

S5: Can you talk a little bit about what Elizabeth Warren was advocating for that the Obama administration was hesitant to do.

S6: Yeah.

S4: So I mean the fundamental critique that she has the main one that she has is that there was not even close to the sense of urgency to bail out homeowners who were being foreclosed on or facing foreclosure that there was to bail out the banks.

S6: And it was I think that. So there’s one question about how much urgency the administration was showing towards potential different victims. You know the well-connected versus the not more connected. I think the other main critique that she would have is that the administration’s response was sort of to what was sort of like putting a bandage on the system rather than realizing how much the system had rotted.

S5: I mean there are two ways to see this which is wow catfight or this is a Cabinet of rivals right. These are people with different ideas clashing and coming together with the express purpose this of finding a compromise I wonder. It sounds like the Obama officials you talked to though they didn’t see it that way.

S2: Well no. And I think part of that is because you know President Obama and the administration you know they never picked her. You know she elbowed her way into that room and made her priorities clear.

S5: You say that they never picked her. When you say that what do you mean. Because it’s my impression that she was selected for the panel by the administration but am I getting it wrong.

S2: No so she selected for the panel literally by Senator Harry Reid. She started her work for the congressional panel actually in December before Obama was even inaugurated.

S9: We had no other choice in that circumstance. I do believe that it had a choice until you moved in. And that was that they could pay 90 cents on the dollar at 85 cents on either 80 cents on that I don’t understand why it’s so complicated as the leader of this TARP panel she’d hold regular public hearings broadcast on C-SPAN.

S3: And if you watch these hearings now what’s clear is that she did not pull punches even if she was fighting with someone in her own party like Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

S9: Mr. Secretary I come from a world of Chapter 11 people default all the time. They negotiate but as you know but on their obligations and they do not bring down the intakes that you’re exactly right.

S10: And you’re a national expert on this basic issue. And that’s why. But banks are different. AIG is effectively a bank. She

S9: was not a bank. I’m out of time and I’ve done it to myself again. I apologize.

S5: All of this would play out in these public hearings. You describe one in 2010 where what was fascinating to me was that before the hearing everything was fine. Everyone’s in an anti room. How you doing. What’s going on. And then as soon as the cameras go on and Elizabeth Warren is you know Tate is in front of Timothy Geithner she’s just ripping into him.

S4: Yeah I mean it’s the person that recounted the A.P. story to me. So he was he was a Republican and he was brought on by Mitch McConnell’s team he a professor in Kentucky and he was just gobsmacked. I mean he he just remembers like oh pleasant. They seem to be friends. And he just remembers being at that hearing and just being wide eyed and just stunned would have been invulnerable to that collapse.

S9: I’m losing the logic here Mr. Secretary if Goldman Sachs could have withstood these losses and the other only all Girardi only the direct effects of that subversives it’s not the right way to do so now they still could have paid off all the parties in turn that they owed money to. This would not have caused Goldman Sachs to collapse. But not because of the direct counterparty struggle.

S10: But you bet.

S4: But if she feels that you’re the dog that caught the car. But she knows exactly what she wants to do with it. She just rips him to shreds and in his memoir you know which you know memoirs are you are are often a little bit papered over but he just can’t. Tim Geithner just can’t help but expresses his frustration in the memoir where he says that he felt the entire exercise were essentially just show trials and you know made for YouTube spectacles and they felt they weren’t serious and that she was just better at impugning our motives than you know offering anything substantive.

S3: But the arguments of the Tim Geithner’s and The Larry Summers they had real logic behind their ideas.

S5: The idea was we’re going to pump money into the banks and that money will then spread out throughout the economy and will kind of revive everyone. And I wonder why she didn’t see it that way.

S4: I think that she saw that as the bare minimum. You know she looks back at those years and she’s like great you saved the banks and you prevented a great depression. Well done. Nice job.

S3: Now what. But part of the reason why someone like Tim Geithner didn’t want to say give direct aid to homeowners who were underwater was because of the optics and the folks who were angry because they were dealing with Tea Party activists who were worried that if you were going to give money to a homeowner who had you know gotten a loan on the basis of their mortgage and added a second bathroom in their house that you know why am I taxpayer guy over here paying for your mistake.

S4: That’s absolutely right I mean it’s it’s so easy. I think Treasury people would say to us it’s just very easy to throw bombs and say hey these people are struggling you’re not doing enough. But I think the view of the Treasury official is like you may not like the banks. This may be morally morally outrageous. I think even Tim Geithner would admit they like what they were doing was poorly and utterly unfair. But it was if you want to help the people at the bottom you need to make sure that the system doesn’t collapse.

S5: You know we talked about her policies and policy disagreements and that’s one that’s one critique that’s one way of sort of thinking about Elizabeth Warren as a candidate and what she believes in what she wants to get done. But then I think there’s this other critique which is how she gets it done and how she expresses herself. Can you talk a bit about how the Obama administration saw this back and forth the fact that she would maybe be one way in public and on the radio or on TV and then another way in private in the political realm.

S4: Yeah I mean I think a lot of people felt that she was a hypocrite. That and this sort of in their mind they’re like you’re sort of nice and pleasant in private. And then it’s all in their minds you know theatricals in public. The what the Obama folks never really understood or appreciated is that that’s exactly what she was doing it was very intentional.

S2: And the reason that she was doing it was because she had no other power in her mind. She was like you wouldn’t even let me into the room. You wouldn’t invite me into the room you wouldn’t care about anything I had to say unless I was loud unless I did you know made in my priorities very very clear in public. And you know I think given to an extent she was surprised at the fact that like you know she’d been saying a lot of these things for a long time. But you know sort of her rage met the moment during the financial crisis and suddenly everyone’s paying attention. And she wasn’t going to let them look away.

S6: And the Obama folks you know they they just didn’t understand. I think it was sort of like a theory of power and some ways. And I think the Obama folks that do admit that they do sort of see it felt that that her power play was more about herself and making herself a power player than it was about her priorities. But that’s sort of where the the friction lay.

S3: In 2010 Elizabeth Warren was instrumental in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau leading this bureau was Warren’s ultimate goal.

S5: He would give her not just the power of the bully pulpit but the power to hold the financial industry to account. But after battling with the president and his administration so publicly for so long White House staffers were not convinced she was right for the job.

S6: OBAMA I think had a more nuanced take. I don’t think he I think he he felt to be this is me speculating a little bit. I think he was annoyed by her. You know when he was sort of grappling with the CFP B decision the senior White House aides all agree that you she occupied a lot of his headspace that he. To the extent where Rahm Emanuel sort of angrily sends out an email and it’s like August 2010 and he goes we are spending a lot of time on one person and.

S4: Like let’s move on. And so they tried to figure out a way of like bringing her inside the tent but not nominating her. And so the first thing that a bomb an Obama administration official who she when she I asked her very directly and she just wouldn’t tell me this was but she said someone went to her and was like hey what about if you’re like a cheerleader quote a cheerleader for the agency. And she I can tell how that’s gonna come off. Yeah exactly and she.

S6: She I asked her I think the way I asked her I was like did you think that was sexist. Elizabeth Warren did not answer my question. She just said it was insulting.

S5: She pivoted yeah you talked to one administration official who said she loved herself. And I read that and I just thought these criticisms it’s impossible to disentangle them from her gender.

S6: I mean I look at them as a woman and it sounds sexist after this story came out there was this really interesting piece that Rebecca Traister in New York Magazine did where she talks about how she’s asked you know a powerful woman this question before as well and the problem is there there’s no answer to that question that they can do because if Elizabeth Warren were to say yes I think that is sexist and the headline becomes Elizabeth Warren accuses Obama administration of being sexist and Rebecca said like it’s not a dodge it’s a trap. And so it was one of those things where I think it was clearly you know sexist critique and there was certainly baiting in sexism with like you know who is this woman telling us what to do.

S4: But you know I think for her to go on the record and accuse them would also not necessarily be helpful to the conversation. I think that was her calculation anyway.

S5: You describe one meeting with President Obama. He takes her to the garden and he’s like Listen instead of running the Consumer Financial Protection Agency which I know you really want to do why don’t why don’t we do something else. Why don’t I put you in this role over here. And she says no. And reading it I did think about like how much strength it required like you have the president you’re in the White House he’s offering you something to just be like No I refuse to negotiate on this.

S4: Yeah I mean it was a fascinating scene and you know actually I said it a little bit. It was blistering hot and you know Warren showed up to the media expecting like an oval office air conditioned meetings that she’s wearing like a nice jacket and you know Obama in his shirtsleeves takes her out there and you know in her book she describes it was like a green version of hell.

S2: And she’s but she won’t take her jacket off because as you know she puts in her book. It was like her. She felt her Her shirt was too skimpy. So here she is.

S6: And Obama is like how about this and you know after she says no the first time and he goes orange just like you’re jamming me. I was Beth and he says don’t overplay your hand.

S11: And she still says whatever. And and and it’s like.

S2: So I asked I asked her and this got cut. I asked her and Army I was like well so were you overplaying your hand.

S11: And. And she got this enormous smirk on her face and she’s like I guess not. I got to I got to set up the agency eventually.

S6: So she didn’t get nominated to head the bureau but she did get sort of a second role which was to basically staff the entire bureau without interference with Tim Geithner.

S5: So that was sort of the compromise in that she was holding out for well and then she was loud enough and problematic enough that they needed to offer her something to get her out. And this decision was made. I’m not sure by whom but maybe you know like let’s offer her a Senate seat. I mean it’s not an offer because you have to run but let’s offer our full endorsement for you to run for Senate in Massachusetts.

S6: Yeah.

S2: I mean once the idea comes the White House and who came up with it is sort of disputed but they were so excited because it was such an elegant solution to their problem which was we hit in their mind they’re like We don’t want to nominate her to head the CFB but we can’t take the risk of letting her out on the outside again. So is in some ways not giving her that lesser job is what now leads her to maybe have the most powerful job in the world.

S3: Yeah I guess I don’t think she overplayed her hand. I think she probably played it does right.

S2: That’s right.

S5: So I guess the question is after digging so deeply into the origin story of Elizabeth Warren as a politician what does it tell you about who she might be as president and certainly who she’s becoming on the campaign trail and I guess why I wonder that you had this moment where you’re interviewing Elizabeth Warren and she responds to the idea that the people she worked with in the Obama administration were quote unquote captured by the system. And she says yes. Yes that’s that’s what it felt like that the Tim Geithner’s of the world they were beholden to the banks. And I was coming in as someone with sharp elbows who was there representing the people. I wonder how much she can change how the government works.

S2: It’s such an interesting question like will like what her administration you know will it be filled with people that graduated from you know you know Rutgers Law School where she graduated from or from like Harvard Law School.

S6: You know Axelrod actually I posed a very similar question to him and he’s like you know it’s really it’s really interesting because we only have a nine month sample size which was the moment when she got to staff up the CDC FCB and that was kind of an executive role. Yes exactly. So it was very much like a a a test run of sort of governance and how you’d run a government agency.

S2: And you know it is interesting because the people that she brought in were unique mix in that you know she brought in someone from Morgan Stanley. She brought in someone from Capital One. Know she brought in young technocrats. She brought in you know sort of experts. It wasn’t as maybe uniform or completely homogenous as maybe sometimes her rhetoric would would suggest and you know I think some trait wasn’t a commune. No exactly exactly. But we don’t know. I mean that’s sort of the point it’s like you know I think a lot of people know about menstruation are like see she watched like she’d do the same thing as us. She was practical she’s pragmatic when she actually had power. I think though that that does underestimate the difference of her world view and so it’ll be interesting to see you know it’s a lot of what we’re doing right now is a lot of tea leaf reading and that would actually be one of the most fascinating things about a Warren presidency if it ever does happen it just it will just be interesting to see how the rhetoric translates into reality.

S12: Alex Thompson thank you so much for joining me. Thanks so much. That was fun. Alex Thompson covers Elizabeth Warren for Politico. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson. Jason De Leon Daniel Hewett and Maurice silvers. I am Mary Harris. You can catch me touring the day on Twitter and at Mary’s desk talking tomorrow.