Sen. Elizabeth Warren took the first major step toward a White House run Monday, announcing a presidential exploratory committee as she attempts to redefine populism for the left in the age of Donald Trump.
“These aren’t cracks that families are falling into. They’re traps. America’s middle class is under attack,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a 4½-minute video posted online. “Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie, and they enlisted politicians to cut ’em a fatter slice.”
Aside from a few images of Trump and polarizing figures in his administration, Warren’s largely biographical video steered clear of directly taking on the president. Instead, it echoed some of the complaints that brought him to power by asserting that “corruption is poisoning our democracy” and that government has “become a tool for the wealthy and well-connected.”
Warren is the biggest name to take a formal step into a race that is expected to feature a historically large primary field for a party that is eager to displace Trump in the White House.
A fundraising juggernaut who was among the first to tap into the anger of a resurgent left, Warren figures to be a major factor in the Democratic primary with a significant chance of winning the nomination.
Some detractors say Warren would have a hard time in a general election, however, both because some voters see her as too far to the left and because the former Harvard University law professor’s style can appear pedantic and lecturing to some ears. She has also been dogged by controversy over her thin claims of Native American ancestry.
But she has proved adept at capturing the frustrations and aspirations of many on the left. She’s skilled at putting core beliefs about the need for government regulation and income distribution into simple terms on videos that go viral. And she has successfully used her position on Senate committees to grill administration figures from both parties whom she has accused of going easy on big banks and other powerful players — attracting accusations of grandstanding from detractors.
“I’m in this fight all the way,” she said at a Monday afternoon news conference in Cambridge, Mass., using her favorite word, “fight,” multiple times.
The rhetoric puts her at the forefront of an intraparty debate over how best to take on the president. Warren believes in a combative approach based on a left-wing alternative to his right-wing populism.
She has long positioned herself as a fighter — years ago saying she had “thrown rocks” at those in the wrong. She relishes an image as a leader who will not back down, even in occasional battles against her own party.
“She was a pioneer of a lot of the populist themes that are coursing through the veins of Democratic primary voters, and she’s able to channel their frustration at the current administration,” said Colin Reed, a consultant who has run a campaign against Warren and later headed a Republican opposition research group.
Like Trump, Warren attempts to channel the anger in the middle class over the decline in employment in the nation’s industrial base and stagnant incomes for a large share of American workers.
Unlike Trump, she favors more government regulation and spending — including Medicare for all — to lift more people from poverty. She also opposes him on the long list of issues of cultural and ethnic diversity that have become litmus tests for both parties.
Warren, a policy wonk, is also far different from Trump in governing style and temperament.
Other potential candidates say a more uplifting message is needed to counter Trump’s grievance-filled politics. Warren, asked about her polarizing reputation on Monday, was unapologetic, saying those unhappy with her are the drug companies, big banks and others who benefit from the status quo.
In announcing on New Year’s Eve, Warren jumped ahead of several Senate colleagues who are expected to join the race soon, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and former Vice President Joe Biden are also among the long list of Democrats considering the race.
Warren, who is completing her first term in the Senate, is 69, younger than Trump and other potential front-runners such as Biden and Sanders, but far from the generational change some in her party are urging.
Her early entry into the 2020 primary race, on the last day of 2018 calendar year, demonstrates the eagerness of potential candidates to stake a claim on party support, fundraising and public attention.
She is entering the primaries at a time when the Democratic Party is not only grappling with its economic message; it is also trying to come to grips with its increasing diversity. Hillary Clinton’s failure to energize enough voters of color was one of many reasons she could not defeat Trump, and many Democrats believe that they must make a stronger appeal to minority voters.
Warren, whose base of support in Massachusetts is largely white, signaled her intent to court minority voters in her launch video, which showed clips of her marching in an LGBTQ parade in a feather boa and attacking Trump’s divisiveness while pointing to the harsher effects that economic inequality has had on people of color.
Trump has gone after her repeatedly, mocking her claims to Native American heritage with the nickname “Pocahontas.”
In a Fox interview Monday, Trump continued to belittle her, saying he would “love to run against her” and attacking her mental fitness by saying “you’d have to ask her psychiatrist” whether she could win the election.
Warren’s attempts to put the Native American controversy to rest, including a DNA test this year that showed trace genetic links to Native American peoples, have largely fallen flat, drawing criticism not only from Republicans but prominent Native Americans as well.
Several reviews of her records, including an exhaustive investigation by the Boston Globe, have found that her ethnicity claims played no role in her hiring at a series of law school jobs, including at Harvard.
“Her message is a resonant one, but in terms of the messenger there are questions that weren’t there a few months ago,” said Tracy Sefl, a Democratic consultant who has been involved in many presidential races.
Sefl called the imperative to defeat Trump in 2020 “almost beyond description” and said “Democrats will be less inclined to choose a messenger who’s been called into question.”
Warren has tried to counter another potential liability — her image as part of the coastal elite — by telling her life story, which she also highlighted in Monday’s launch video.
She grew up in Oklahoma to middle-class parents. Her mother took a job at Sears when her father was unable to work following a heart attack.
A champion high school debater, she was able to make it to college and then law school while also starting a family.
Those early struggles fit within her economic argument that middle- and working-class families are often left without a safety net in the face of healthcare emergencies and other setbacks.
As a member of the Democratic minority in the Senate, Warren can’t claim many legislative accomplishments, but has succeeded in commanding attention.
She has kept financial regulation at the center of her message, the issue that brought her to prominence as an academic and allowed her to first make her mark on national politics while serving as a special advisor in the Obama administration. In that role, she advocated for and helped establish a consumer protection agency as part of the financial services and banking overhaul passed in the aftermath of the financial collapse.
Warren, a longtime critic of Wall Street, was passed over by President Obama to lead the agency on a permanent basis after Republicans made it clear they would fight her nomination. She ran for the Senate instead, winning her first term in 2012.
Despite hostility toward her policies from the financial industry, which contributes heavily to many candidates in both parties, Warren has been an especially strong fundraiser since entering politics. In her first Senate race, she raised what were then record levels of donations in both small online contributions and larger sums from the party’s big players.
She is a large draw on the campaign trail, where she gestures emphatically as she talks about what she characterizes as the “rigged” system that favors the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of middle-class people.
Warren stayed out of the 2016 race, believing Clinton was unbeatable in the primary. Since then, other contenders for the White House, including Sanders, have captured much of the attention and energy that had been directed toward her.
Questions intensified about whether her moment had passed after signs of somewhat tepid support cropped up in her home state this year.
She easily won reelection against an unknown candidate, drawing 60% of the vote, but her vote total was lower than that of Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, and polls showed the majority of Massachusetts voters did not want her to make a presidential run. Many Democrats preferred former Gov. Deval Patrick, who recently bowed out.
The Boston Globe editorial board, one of the most liberal in the country, urged her to reconsider a bid, saying she had become a “divisive figure” on the national stage.
“There’s no shame in testing the waters and deciding to stay on the beach,” the board wrote.