EXCLUSIVE: Elizabeth Warren on Barack Obama: "They protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. And it happened over and over and over"

"There has not been nearly enough change," she tells Salon, taking on Obama failures, lobbyists, tuition. So 2016?

Published October 12, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)

  (AP/Charles Dharapak)
(AP/Charles Dharapak)

Senator Elizabeth Warren scarcely requires an introduction. She is the single most exciting Democrat currently on the national stage.

Her differentness from the rest of the political profession is stark and obvious. It extends from her straightforward clarity on economic issues to the energetic way she talks. I met her several years ago when she was taking time out from her job teaching at Harvard to run the Congressional Oversight Panel, which was charged with supervising how the bank bailout money was spent. I discovered on that occasion not only that we agreed on many points of policy, but that she came originally from Oklahoma, the state immediately south of the one where I grew up, and also that high school debate had been as important for her as it had been for me.

In the years since then, Professor Warren helped to launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which will probably be remembered as one of the few lasting achievements of the Obama Administration); she wrote a memoir, A Fighting Chance; and she was elected to the United States Senate from Massachusetts.

This interview was condensed and lightly edited.

I want to start by talking about a line that you’re famous for, from your speech at the Democratic National Convention two years ago: “The system is rigged.” You said exactly what was on millions of people’s minds. I wonder, now that you’re in D.C. and you’re in the Senate, and you have a chance to see things close up, do you still feel that way? And: Is there a way to fix the system without getting the Supreme Court to overturn Citizens United or some huge structural change like that? How can we fix it?

That’s the question that lies at the heart of whether our democracy will survive. The system is rigged. And now that I’ve been in Washington and seen it up close and personal, I just see new ways in which that happens. But we have to stop and back up, and you have to kind of get the right diagnosis of the problem, to see how it is that—it goes well beyond campaign contributions. That’s a huge part of it. But it’s more than that. It’s the armies of lobbyists and lawyers who are always at the table, who are always there to make sure that in every decision that gets made, their clients’ tender fannies are well protected. And when that happens — not just once, not just twice, but thousands of times a week — the system just gradually tilts further and further. There is no one at the table…I shouldn’t say there’s no one. I don’t want to overstate. You don’t have to go into hyperbole. But there are very few people at the decision-making table to argue for minimum-wage workers. Very few people.

They need to get a lobbyist. Why haven’t they got on that yet?

Yeah. Why aren’t they out there spending? In the context when people talk about “get a lobbyist,” the big financial institutions spent more than a million dollars a day for more than a year during the financial reform debates. And my understanding is, their spending has ratcheted up again. My insight about that, about exactly that point, [is] in the book [A Fighting Chance], in the second chapter, which is when my eyes first get opened to the political system. Here I am, I’m studying what’s happening to the American family, and just year by year by year, I’m watching America’s middle class get hammered. They just keep sliding further down. The data get worse every year that I keep pulling this data. Bankruptcy is the last hope to right their lives for those who have been hit by serious medical problems, job losses, a divorce, a death in the family — that accounts for about 90 percent of the people who file for bankruptcy. Those four causes, or those three if you combine divorce and death. So, how could America, how could Congress adopt a bankruptcy bill that lets credit card companies squeeze those families harder?

What year was that?

When they finally adopted it was 2005. But the point was, it started back in — actually it started in 1995, the effort [to change the bankruptcy laws]. And that’s when I got involved with the Bankruptcy Commission. When, first, [commission chairman] Mike Synar came to me, and then Mike Synar died. It was just awful. And Brady Williamson [the replacement chairman] came to me. But what I saw during that process is, this was not an independent panel that could kind of sit and think through the [problem]: “Let’s take a look at what the numbers show about what’s happening to the families. Let’s take some testimony, get some people in here who have been through bankruptcy, and some creditors who have lost money in bankruptcy, and let’s figure out some places where we could make some sensible recommendations to Congress.” That wasn’t what it turned out to be at all.

It turned out that it was all about paid lobbyists . . .

And what they wanted.

And what they wanted. I tried as hard as I could, and there were almost no bankrupt families who were ever even heard from. And you stop and think about it — why would that be so? Well, first of all, to show up to something like that, you’ve got to know about it and you’ve got to take a day off from work. Who’s going to do that? These are families who are under enormous stress and deeply humiliated about what had happened to them. They had to make a public declaration that they were losers in the great American economic game.

I know exactly the kind of people you’re talking about. I wanted to ask you, not specifically about people declaring bankruptcy, but about the broader working people of this country. You’re from Oklahoma. I’m from Kansas. You’ve seen what’s happened in those places. There are lots and lots of working people in those places and a lot of other places…

Hardworking people. People who work hard. That’s what you want to remember. Not just people who kind of occasionally show up.

Yeah. The blue collar backbone of this country. And in places like I’m describing, it gets worse every year—well, I shouldn’t say worse, because it’s their choice, but a lot of them choose Republicans. I was looking at Oklahoma, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, I’m pretty sure you are, 16 percent of the vote went for Eugene Debs in 1912 and today it’s going in the other direction as fast as it can. How is this ever going to change?

I have at least two thoughts around that and we should explore both of them. One of them is that we need to do a better job of talking about issues. And I know that sounds boring and dull as dishwater, but it’s true. The differences between voting for two candidates should be really clear to every voter and it should be clear in terms of, who votes to raise the minimum wage and who doesn’t. Who votes to lower the interest rate on student loans and who doesn’t. Who votes to make sure women can’t get fired for asking how much a guy is making for doing the same job, and who doesn’t. There are these core differences that are about equality and opportunity. It can’t be that we don’t make a clear distinction. If we fail to make that distinction, then shame on us. That is my bottom line on this.

You know, during the Senate race that I was in — I mean, I was a first-time candidate, I’d never done this before — the thing that scared me the most was that the race wouldn’t be about the core differences between my opponent and me. I wanted people to understand where I stood on investments in the future, investments in education and research that help us build a future. Where I stood on the minimum wage and equal pay. And where he stood on the other side. The point was not to blur the differences and to run to some mythical middle where we agreed with each other. The point was to say that, here are really big differences between the two of us. Voters have a chance to make a choice.

In some ways that’s exactly the problem. When I talk to people, they often say Democrats aren’t the party of working people at all. And they talk about NAFTA and deregulating Wall Street, and they say, look at these guys, they won’t prosecute the financial industry. They say, Democrats talk a good game, but they’re always on the side of the elite at the end of the day. What do you say to these people?

We’re the only ones fighting back. Right now, on financial reform, the Republicans are trying to roll back the financial reforms of Dodd-Frank. In fact, Mitch McConnell has announced that if he gets the majority in the Senate, his first objective is to repeal healthcare and his second is to roll back the financial reforms, and in particular to target the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — the one agency that’s out there for American families, the one that has returned more than four billion dollars to families who got cheated by big financial institutions. That’s in just three years.

So, Democrats have not done all that they should, but at least we’re out there fighting for the right things. We’re fighting and I think trying to pull in the right direction. So if the question is, hold us to a higher standard, man, I’m there. You’re right. [If] you want to criticize and say, “you should do more!,” the answer is: Yes, we should! You bet! We should be stronger. We should be tougher. But understand the difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party right now. It’s pulling as hard and fast as it can in the opposite direction.

No doubt about that. I should ask you about — and we’re talking about the financial crisis and the failure to prosecute anyone, and the…I’m sorry, I’m going to get the name confused, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

That’s okay. It was named by Republicans to be as confusing a name as possible. (laughs) I used to think of it as the four random initials. (laughs) I just call it my consumer agency. So that’s it, just the consumer agency.

So here’s another aspect of this: Eric Holder is stepping down as attorney general, and you in the Senate are going to have to confirm a successor. And one of the things, I don’t know if you’ve followed this or not, but one of the things the Department of Justice has been doing, if you look at the actual prosecutions they’ve been making, they essentially blame the financial crisis on little people. People who lied on their loan applications. And I wonder, are you going to demand something different out of his successor? You’re going to have a chance to confirm this guy and talk to this guy…

You bet I am. I want to be clear on this. It’s the Justice Department. But it’s also the banking regulators. And the SEC. So the most recent hearing we held that had them all in together — you know we get them in twice a year — and, boy, you want to ask me if I’m glad to be in the United States Senate? (laughs) I get to be on the Banking Committee, and twice a year we haul the banking regulators in front of us for supervision. For oversight I should say, not supervision. So we had them all in. . . . We had them all in, in July. And that was the question I asked: How many big bank executives have you referred to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution?

That’s a very good question. I was going to ask you that, too.

Exactly right. Because that’s the other half of how the game is rigged. You know, we think of it in terms of Congress, and we should, because it’s definitely rigged in Congress and this is a place where people can do something about it. But the wind always blows from the same direction through the agencies. Those agencies, the banking regulators, who do they hear from, day in and day out? Big banks. They don’t hear from people who got cheated on their mortgages, people who got tricked on their credit cards. They hear from the big financial institutions, day after day after day. That’s, in part, what this whole Fed — this latest scandal at the Fed — you know with Carmen Segarra who has the tapes. Part of what that shows, if you just back up and think about what you’re seeing there, it’s that the supervisors, or regulators as they’re called — everybody commonly calls them that — the regulators all meet with Goldman Sachs executives and employees day after day after day. They don’t see the people who get tricked, the people who get cheated, the people who get fooled by the products that Goldman turns out.

That’s right. Regulatory capture, this is an old problem. I was writing about it, obviously, in the Bush days. But President Obama had a golden opportunity when he came in to change the system and I just don’t feel like it has changed, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau aside. I mean, are the regulators now referring things to the Justice Department? Are the wheels turning again?

There has not been nearly enough change. Not nearly enough. The consumer agency — this is why I argued for it — the consumer agency is structural change. So basically, the premise behind it was that there were plenty of federal laws out there, but no agency would step up and enforce them. And the responsibilities of these laws were scattered among seven different agencies and not one of those agencies saw its principal job as looking out for American families. So the OCC [Office of the Comptroller of the Currency] was all about bank profitability, the Fed was all about monetary policy. Everybody had something that they were about, but consumer protection was everybody’s job and therefore nobody’s job. You know, it was down seventh, or tenth or hundredth on the list and they never got to it, even as the big financial institutions were selling mortgages that should have been described as grenades with the pins pulled out. Really! My whole thing about toasters—remember, that was based on fact. At the time I wrote that piece on it, that was before the crash, one in five mortgages that were being marketed by the biggest financial institutions were exploding and costing people their homes. No one would permit toasters to be sold when one in five exploded and burned down somebody’s house. But they were selling mortgages like that and every regulator knew about it.

And those people who had it blow up in their faces, those are the ones we’re prosecuting.

Oh God. So exactly right. Well, to the extent we do [prosecute] anyone. But that’s exactly right. And so the idea behind the consumer agency was to say: structural change. We need an agency that has one and only one goal, and that is to look out for American families. To level the playing field, to make sure that people are not getting tricked and trapped on these financial instruments. And so it was a big shift, and it’s a shift worth thinking about. We took away — Dodd-Frank took away — all this responsibility that had nominally been spread among the other agencies, concentrated it in one agency, and now holds that agency accountable. So you give the agency the tools and then hold them accountable. The reason I think that story is so important is because it is structural. It’s not just a question of, “Gee, get good people and somehow things will work better.” There are structural changes we have to make. . . . The idea, the question that haunted me at the agency was: How do we make sure the agency is true to its mission, not just today with the people that we hire in the first plume of excitement, but 30 years from now, 40 years from now, 50 years from now…

Yeah, that’s the problem, when President Huckabee has . . . [At this point Senator Warren conferred with an aide about her schedule.] Can I skip to another subject real quick?

You can.

Let’s get back to the mindset of a lot of people. They look at you and they say, Elizabeth Warren, she’s part of the elite too. She was a professor at Harvard. And people would also say, look at the student loan disaster which you talk a lot about these days, the root cause of it is college tuition, which has increased by a thousand percent in 30 years. You look at the advertised price at Harvard right now, I know that not everybody pays it, but the advertised price is sixty grand a year. If you have three kids and all of them have to pay that much for four years—you know what I’m talking about?

I do.

Nobody can afford that. Is it time to do something about college tuition?

Absolutely. Yes it is. But let’s get the right frame on this. Because I think this is really important, and it’s the right question to ask. But start with this: three out of four kids in college are in public universities. A generation ago, state support for public universities was strong enough that three out of four dollars to educate those kids came from taxpayers and the family had to make up the difference for the fourth dollar. Today, that has basically reversed itself. That is, that the states are putting up, just generally across the country, about one out of four dollars and the families have got to come up with the other three out of four dollars. This matters because it is the state universities that are the backbone of access to higher education for middle class families, and I think that’s the place you have to start the conversation. I’m not going to let anybody off the hook, but I think it’s the critical part of the conversation. And I say this — it’s like I talk about in the book — this is personal for me. I graduated from a commuter college that cost $50 a semester in Texas.

Those were the days.

That’s right. It opened a million doors for me. And that happened because I grew up in an America that was investing in its kids. That America is gone. We’re not doing that anymore. So I start there at the heart of it. . . . And then there’s a second piece that we’ve got to factor into the equation, and that is: one in 10 kids in college is in a for-profit university. Actually, here are three numbers. They’re not perfect, but they’re just about right: 10, 25, 50. Ten percent of our kids are in for-profit universities, colleges. Those for-profit universities are sucking down 25 percent of federal loan dollars, and they are responsible for 50 percent of all student loan defaults.

It’s an outrage.

So we are, the federal government is currently subsidizing a for-profit industry that is ripping off young people. Those young people are graduating — many of them are never graduating — and of those that are graduating, many of them have certificates that won’t get them jobs, that don’t produce the benefits of a state college education.

You know somebody to talk to sometime if you want to ever do a separate story on this is Marty Meehan [who] is the president of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. And what he talks about is, particularly, the young vets who come to UMass-Lowell already sixty or seventy thousand dollars in debt without a single college credit that will transfer to an accredited university. Now, think about that.

So who do you think gets targeted by these for-profit universities? It’s kids who are the first in their family to go to college. It’s not happening to the sons and daughters of graduates from elite schools. It’s happening to young people who are the first in their family to graduate from college. Many of them have come out of the military, they’ve gone into the military straight from high school. They’ve now completed their military service. These are strivers, boot-strappers, hard-working kids who are the very kids we most want to make sure the doors of opportunity are open for. You know who else goes [to these schools]? It’s young, single mothers who are trying to make something out of their lives, many of them are working two and even three jobs, who believe that if they can get a college education, their children will have opportunities that would otherwise be closed off, and yet that’s not what they’re getting. They’re getting preyed on by these schools. So I mention this only by way of saying, when we look at college — you’re not wrong — we have got to use the leverage of the federal government investment to bring down the cost of college across the board. But we’ve got particular problems to focus on, both in support for public universities and the resources that are being drained away by the for-profit schools.

Here’s the penultimate question: everything you’re saying are issues that have been important to me most of my adult life. In 2008, I thought I had a candidate who was going to address these things. Right? Barack Obama. Today, my friends and I are pretty disappointed with what he’s done. I wonder if you feel he has been forthright enough on these subjects. And I also wonder if you think that someone can take any of this stuff on without being president. You know, there are a lot of good politicians in America who have their heart in the right place. But they’re not the president. Well anyhow. You understand my frustration…

I understand your frustration, Tom and, actually, I talk about this in the book. When I think about the president, for me, it’s about both halves. If Barack Obama had not been president of the United States we would not have a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Period. I’m completely convinced of that. And I go through the details in the book, and I could tell them to you. But he was the one who refused to throw the agency under the bus and made sure that his team kept the agency alive and on the table. Now there was a lot of other stuff that also had to happen for it to happen. But if he hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t have gotten the agency. At the same time, he picked his economic team and when the going got tough, his economic team picked Wall Street.

You might say, “always.” Just about every time they had to compromise, they compromised in the direction of Wall Street.

That’s right. They protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. Not young people who were struggling to get an education. And it happened over and over and over. So I see both of those things and they both matter.

Is there anything someone can do about all the things we’re describing, short of being president?

But we keep fighting back. The way to think about this is not…. Yes, we want the right person for president. You bet. But it’s all of us fighting back. . . . This is, and actually, this is where we almost started this conversation — how, as a people, we reclaim our government. How we, as a people, force Washington to work for us, not just for those with money and power. So I just gave a speech this morning. It’s interesting you would catch me on this particular day. I spoke to the New England Council so we had lots of CEOs and COOs — about 300 people — and I spoke on a not very sexy topic, on infrastructure and basic research. And I made the pitch about the importance of both of those. You know, gave some of the basic stats on why both are so important to building a future for this country. Then I did the basic stats on how we’re falling short. Where we’re cutting our investments — where we’ve been cutting our investments for 30 years. The Society of Civil Engineers says we’ve got $3.4 trillion in infrastructure underfunding — work that we need to do to bring our infrastructure up to current standards. So I talked about this and about the importance of it in building a future.

But the third part of the speech was the political part. It was the democracy part. I said, “So how could this happen in a country like America? I mean, I’m sitting here with you. You’re business leaders. Nobody would run a business like this. To under-invest in the key pieces to help build a future. So how does this happen?” It happens because there are a lot of people in Washington who say the answer to everything is, cut taxes. And when you’ve cut them as much as you can, cut them some more. And a lot of people have the corollary to that, and that is — cut spending. And it’s spending in all of the basics that help build a future: cut spending in education, in resource management, in infrastructure, in research, in core pieces we need to build a future.

“It’s there,” I said. “Look, get out there and fight back against this. I’m glad to do it. But I can’t do it alone. You have to get out there. You’re business leaders! You have to say ‘enough is enough.’ We have to build a future going forward.” And I said, “We need your voices. You have to be out there on the front lines. I’m glad to be out here. I’ll take the point. I’ll be in the leadership spot. I’ll talk about it, I’ll be loud, I’ll be blunt. But we need your voices in this. That’s the way we build a future.” And I feel like it’s all this series of issues we talked about, we have got to bring more people in.

You know, the other side has its advantage, and boy have they played it out for 30 years now — concentrated money and concentrated power. And you can do a lot with concentrated money and concentrated power. But our side—we have our voices and we have our votes. If people get engaged on the issues, the votes are on our side. Seventy-five percent of America wants to raise the minimum wage. That’s where we’ll head.

There’s a lot of issues like that.

But that’s the point. Look, there are two ways you can look at that. You can look at that and say, “Well, obviously, democracy doesn’t work.” Or the other way you can look at that is to say, “We have the opportunity. The moment is upon us.” We push back hard enough, we’re pushing for America’s agenda. Not an agenda to help a small group of people, an agenda to build a future for this country. And I believe we win. I believe it.

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

MORE FROM Thomas Frank