Sen. Elizabeth Warren has become the rockstar that Barack Obama once was. The difference is that she's already in a position to effect both the national conversation and U.S. governance. When Obama announced himself on the scene in 2004, he was still just running for U.S. Senate. That meant that he was in a position to change the national conversation (which he did) but not necessarily to mold its policy. And when he got the U.S. Senate, he was already eyeing a run for president, so we will never really know what he might have done or wanted to do as a senator.
Not so with Warren. We know what she wants to do (stick up for the little guy), has the expertise to do (protect average consumers from big money interests) and is increasingly doing with expert effect. Thursday, in many ways, Warren arrived on the national political stage as a force to be reckoned with—not simply as a conversation changer but as a steward of policy. This week, Warren became the progressive litmus-test, a one-woman gatekeeper that must be consulted on the way to enacting any law, or at least those that fall within her policy wheelhouse. (We can only hope the right-wingers in the GOP stay as unruly as ever because they will force Boehner to appeal to the Warren-Pelosi tag team in order to get anything through the House.)
Many on the left want Warren to run for president for obvious reasons. In many ways, she is proving herself to be the person that the left yearned for but Obama never actually was. Earlier this week, Moveon.org launched a million-dollar effort to draft Warren for president and on Friday a group of 300 Obama alums signed an open letter urging her to run because, as they put it, they already knew what is was like to believe "in an unlikely candidate who no one thought had a chance."
Warren is not likely to run. As Markos wrote in July, she's not running and that's a good thing. In that post, Markos noted that she doesn't have the ego to run, that doing so would marginalize her, that Hillary would crush her, and that she has all the perch she needs to effect both policy and the national conversation right there in the Senate. Never was that more clear than this week. On every bill the congressional leadership negotiates they will now have to wonder, "What will Warren do?" And at every turn during her presidential run, Hillary Clinton will have to answer the questions that Elizabeth Warren plants in the national conscience.
But even if Warren doesn't run, the energy that exists to draft her is still worth having because it gives her power, it gives her relevance, and it can absolutely be used to moderate the forces on the right.
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Over the past six years, we have gotten a look at what happens when one person stirs a nation's soul and then a majority of that nation elevates him to office believing that he is some kind of messiah who will answer all their prayers. He was bound to fail, he could only answer some, and while he was a great orator and a great campaigner, he wasn't as effective at changing policy as many on the left had hoped.
He was also a gradualist. Phillip Agnew, an activist who is part of the #blacklivesmatter movement against police brutality and one of six grassroots leaders who met with Obama in the Oval Office last week, wrote this of their encounter with the president:
He listened. Intently. He responded passionately. He agreed with many of our points and offered his take on the current State of the Union. He presented the reforms that have dominated the discourse in the hours after our meeting. He cautioned us against demanding too big and stressed gradualism. He counseled us that the wheels of progress turn sluggishly and reminded us of the progress that got us to this point: a room full of black folk in the Oval Office. He asked for our help, harkening back to his organizing days when, in the streets of Chicago, the cries of the people shifted the landscape. We debated on the power of the vote and the lack of faith in the Democratic party.
We did not budge.
In the aftermath of the Eric Garner case, Charles Blow at the New York Times recently noted
the groundswell of activism in this country.
There seems to be a new age of activism rising. From Occupy Wall Street, to the “Stop Watching Us” march against government surveillance, to the Moral Monday protests, to the People’s Climate March, to the recent nationwide protests over the killings of men and boys of color by police, there is obviously a discontent in this country that is pouring into the streets.
He left out the LGBT movement, which most definitely has protested and agitated for change. In fact, the National Equality March in the fall of 2009 was the first major national protest from the left after President Obama took office.
But Blow's point is well taken. We have become a nation of protesters. And that is partially due to a president who raised hopes that no one could have ever humanly fulfilled and a Congress that can't govern worth a damn.
We have become a nation of protesters because more than believing in one person, we believe in ideals—equality of income, equality of opportunity, equality under the law—that have been lost in policy and governance.
Elizabeth Warren is articulating and even embodying many of those ideals. But she need not run for president for those ideals to matter or to effect change in this country.
After covering the LGBT movement for nearly a decade, I have come to believe in the power of numbers and the power of an emergent movement of people speaking their truths—sometimes in public, sometime en masse, and sometimes in the lonely corners of their homes and families.
I, like many others, would love to see someone like Elizabeth Warren capture the imagination of the nation and be elevated to the highest office in the land. But we have already seen that come to be. And in many ways, the energy behind the hope for her candidacy is more important than the candidacy itself.