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Elizabeth Warren: Obama was wrong. The system is more rigged than you know.

“Money slithers through Washington like a snake...the influence is everywhere.”

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Elizabeth Warren is the founder of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the senior senator from Massachusetts, and the author of the new book This Fight is Our Fight.

You might have heard of her.

Warren is also one of the Democrats most capable of defining the Democratic Party’s soul and message in a post-Trump era. In her book, she says she had at least one big disagreement with President Obama — a disagreement that speaks to the direction she wants to lead the party. So we began there.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can download or stream the full discussion on my podcast.)

Ezra Klein

In your new book, you talk about a speech President Obama gave in the summer of 2016 where he said, "The system isn't as rigged as you think."

You write that, "No, President Obama, the system is as rigged as we think. In fact, it's worse than most Americans realize." What do people miss about the rigging?

Elizabeth Warren

Money slithers through Washington like a snake, and it's quiet, but the influence is everywhere. There are the obvious ways that we know about, the campaign contributions and armies of lobbyists. But it's so much more. It's bought-and-paid-for experts who testify before Congress and are quoted in the press. It's think tanks that are funded by shadowy money and always have a particular point of view that just seems to help the rich and the powerful get richer and more powerful.

In the book, I talk about the revolving door and how people work on Wall Street for 20 years, and then take a spin through the revolving door and work in the Treasury Department, and then spin right back to Wall Street. The giant payouts that they give to people to go work in government are just stunning. I mean, millions of dollars.

These big corporations! "If you go teach, we got nothing for you. If you want to go build houses for Habitat for Humanity, we'll give you a firm handshake. If you'll go work in government, we'll write you this giant check to go do that." What is that, except by way of saying, "Remember us, because you're going to be the one driving the bus, and when you're driving the bus, keep in mind all the things we care about."

Money pervades. It's whose phone calls do you take. It's who you see in the evenings. It's who are your old friends. It's every part of it, so that the rich and the powerful are incredibly well-represented, not just at the top in the White House but all the way through government in this town.

Ezra Klein

Let me ask you about the other side of this. One thing that can happen, particularly on the left, is that disagreement gets dismissed as the system being rigged. I think sometimes about a quote Bernie Sanders had where he said that only 10 to 15 percent of the population would be Republican if not for big money obfuscating everything and changing people's minds.

Do you think that’s right? Or is that an easy out, where liberals who want to see something controversial get done find it easier to say, "That's not happening because the rich are stopping it,” rather than, “That's not happening because Republicans really disagree, or because the public doesn't trust the government to take on that kind of a role, or because people just fear change"?

Elizabeth Warren

Look, I get the point. There are just things on which we disagree. You notice Bernie's quote did not say nobody could be a Republican. He just says, "Look, a lot of the reason that Republicans are able to get out there and get votes is because the influence of money has changed the landscape, has tilted the playing field, has changed how people think about these issues and how people debate these issues."

We need to have the real debates, we should have the real debates, but sometimes it’s frustrating because when you try to have them, it's against an onslaught that is so profoundly funded by money.

I mean, what did you think when you saw billionaires jump in a little over a year ago when Justice Scalia died? President Obama comes up with the all-American consensus candidate, Merrick Garland, someone who had won praise from not just the left but the right, and the hammer drops, bam! Mitch McConnell announces, "We're not even going to meet with him, we're not going to have any hearings," and money starts rolling in.

You know, if money hadn't rolled in to start running those ads against Merrick Garland, to threaten to run ads against Republicans who didn't fall into line, then my guess is a lot of folks across America, Democrats and Republicans, would have said, "You know, he looks like a pretty good choice. He doesn't excite anybody on either end of the spectrum, [but he’s] the sort of guy who ought to be able to get 60 votes. Let's give him a hearing, let's see what he's like." And he would be sitting on the United States Supreme Court. Instead, money made itself felt in that process, and what we ended up with is a justice who, again, money was spent to advance [Neil] Gorsuch.

Ezra Klein

Let's say we got incredibly powerful campaign finance and just money-in-politics reform through Congress. Let's say the only money that any person or corporation could spend on any political activity whatsoever is $250. Now politics is running off small-donor donations. Merrick Garland, as much as he was a very centrist candidate, would have taken a Court that was 5-4 Republican to 5-4 Democratic. I think that in that world, if you are a religious conservative and you're somebody who's sending in those $250 donations, you would have still seen that as a big problem.

To me, this is where we get this question of how do you unrig the system. In some ways, I think both President Obama and President Trump ran for the office on a little bit of a similar argument, which is that, "I will come in and I will be above this." Obama in a sort of idealistic way, Trump because he's already so rich that he doesn't care what the special interests think, but both of them came in and said, "I can pull the system out of this space," and that wasn't true.

So how do you unrig it? Can a president unrig it?

Elizabeth Warren

For me, the world shifted not just when Donald Trump was elected but when the Women's March happened the next day. Millions of people across this country got connected and started showing up during the health care debates, and started showing up in airports when the immigration ban was signed. To me, that's a moment American history changed. No longer was it politics is every four years for most Americans. No, it was a moment when people said, "I'm going to use everything I've got to make sure that this government reflects my values," and I think that's the moment it shifted.

Here's the part right now that I think is so exciting, Ezra, and why I'm actually very optimistic at this moment. Fighting back the assault on health care that the Republicans launched through Trumpcare, when we beat that back, we proved that just showing up, just getting in the fight, just being willing to talk about it could change an outcome.

I get it that the reason officially that the bill didn't go through was because for a handful of Republicans it was not brutal enough. You know, it hadn't hurt people enough or produced a big enough tax cut. But here's what's interesting. The rest of those Republicans, they didn't fall over that cliff, and why not? Because all the people who had shown up, who had made phone calls, who had sent emails, who had done Facebook posts ... that's democracy.

Ezra Klein

Let me push you on this a bit, because I think this is one of the great questions of politics. Obamacare is such a good example. When it was passing and then after it passed, it powered the Tea Party movement. Barack Obama was never able to get the crowds out for Obamacare that he could get out for himself during the campaign. Then when Obamacare was about to get taken away, loss aversion kicked in again on the liberal side. All of a sudden, the repealers could not get anybody out anywhere, but liberals were able to get big crowds out to town halls all over the country.

This bears on unrigging the system. People put a lot of their energy into electing the president. Then when their person is in there, they say, "You should be able to do this now. We got you elected." The other side, which feels powerless, says, "We're going to come into the streets and stop it." How do you merge the getting-somebody-elected with staying in the streets?

Elizabeth Warren

It's a great question, but I read this time period slightly differently. I think that once he got elected, President Obama thought the goodness of the thing he was passing spoke for itself. I don't think he really was out there beating the bushes trying to get the crowds, trying to get people to help him push this thing forward. I don't think we've tested whether you can use the energy of democracy to get something passed.

I want to give you something else. Remember, the crash happens in 2008, and we know we're going to do financial reform. The original focus was on Wall Street, but I had this idea for this consumer agency. The basic idea behind it was to say, "We've got to take all these various consumer laws, put them with one agency, and hold that agency responsible for enforcing them." The problem was we had plenty of laws, but they were all scattered, and they just weren't a first priority for anybody.

How do you get an agency through like that? An agency that basically takes aim at the profit centers of some of the largest financial institutions in this country and says, "You can't do what you're doing.” We put the proposal out there. The big banks said, "No, never, will not happen." They spend more than a million dollars a day — that's every day, including Saturdays and Sundays — to lobby against the financial reforms generally, but let's face it, the center of the bull’s-eye on what they were lobbying against was that consumer agency.

How did we turn it into law? We turned it into law through democracy. We got enough people around this country engaged, writing letters, making phone calls, doing Facebook posts. Here's the best part. It's a good strong agency. It's been out there, what, about five years now? It has already forced the biggest financial institutions in this country to return more than $12 billion directly to people they've cheated. It has already handled more than a million complaints to people. I'll say to everybody, go to if you've been cheated out of $15 or $15,000. They may be able to help you on this.

It's the people's agency. It works, and banks have been after it and after it and after it, but by golly, it's got enough support that, so far at least, they haven't been able to take the legs out from underneath it.

Ezra Klein

You have a very interesting couple of chapters in the book about the way you approached fighting Trump. You talked about the tweets you sent and the way you attacked him, and you sort of say, "Look, I've had to go hard against Trump, and I didn't like it and I know it makes people uncomfortable, but it's how you get people to pay attention."

That speaks to something I've been thinking about a lot, which is: Is the only way to fight the angry form of faux-populism Trump represents with an also-angry form of populism? How does everything not become Trumpified in the age of Trump? How is there space for a politics that is not the one he has set up?

Elizabeth Warren

I think that's a really terrific question. I think the most important thing we can do is be in the fight. I actually do think the fight metaphor is right, that this is how democracy works now, that everything we hold dear is truly under assault. But the second part, we can't shoot at everything that moves.

Trump is about to end his first 100 days. Either it worked or it didn't work. People have been persuaded or they haven't been persuaded. We've got to be focused on what Donald Trump is actually doing. Ultimately, Donald Trump will be held accountable for what he does.

Ezra Klein

What Trump I think understood is that the public sees both corporations and the government as in some ways merged. It's a class of the powerful. What is your program for raising the public's trust in government?

Elizabeth Warren

Well, the first part is you've actually got to get out there and fight on the people's side. I mean, this is not a world where you just get to say, "Hey, we love you, we're here from the government." You've actually got to deliver.

The second part is when you do deliver, you actually need to talk about it. Get out there and talk with people about why this is what we're trying, and listen to feedback. If it's not working for the people it was supposed to be working for, then change it.

You know, I have three brothers who are veterans, and my brothers have given me an earful about the Veterans Administration. I know the scandal's the big part, but the way I look at this is the guy at the top, I have no doubt, really wants to try to deliver for veterans, but could he get out there and listen to some veterans and what it feels like to them on the ground?

I think a big part of this is we've got to engage people more with their government. We've got to be willing to listen, and we've got to be willing to make change, and you know what that means? We've also got to be willing to take some chances, to try some things that haven't been tried before.

Ezra Klein

Something I've always been interested in in your vision is you've always been focused, I think somewhat unusually among politicians, on the way complexity in policy and process creates space for power to take things over. I'm curious about how you think of that on a systemic level.

The public cannot be focused on every single hearing, on every single regulation, coming down the pike. So how do you protect those processes from takeover by the moneyed interests who do have the power and the interest and the incentive and the cash to spend time on it, and to send really well-prepared lobbyists? How do you make your concern with complexity into a vision for how to run the government?

Elizabeth Warren

This was a huge issue for me when I was thinking about setting up the consumer agency. I had a year, basically, to come in and try to put it together. What I kept thinking about is how the more complex our rules are, the more opportunities there will be for, over time, the most powerful actors — the biggest banks, the biggest debt collectors — to come in and get just a little shading for themselves.

Over time, an agency will hear only from the giant corporations whose ox is being gored. They won't hear from the people that every single day are ultimately affected by the decisions they make. You are right when you say the problem is not bad faith of regulators. It's the structural problem that complexity requires real resources to navigate, and that's why it is that it favors the richest and most powerful.

For me, what that meant, for example over at the consumer agency, was two parts that I can tell you about right from the beginning. One was how to get the consumer's voice back into the process. Not just once. Not just you came to it as a regulator with a good heart because you'd worked somewhere else where you'd had a chance to see it. It was how you got it in every day, and that's where I think that the complaint line is actually one of the most amazing things about the consumer agency. If you ever get a chance, go over and actually visit them, and they'll show you how the thing works.

Ezra Klein

I know people who worked on that line, not at the top, but at the bottom. One thing that's amazing to me is the culture there took that line so seriously. That's what doesn't happen in other agencies.

Elizabeth Warren

That was the thing! When I was setting up the complaint line, I looked around at the other agencies, because in fact there are a bunch of complaint lines of some form or another where you can send complaints in on the federal government. I was just appalled. I mean, they were just thrown into cardboard boxes. They were given to the employee who does the least and is in the furthest corner in the dingiest office, which is kind of a signal in itself. I did everything I could when I was setting up that agency to give that complaint hotline good space, to make sure really smart, terrific people [were] running it, and then [to] integrate it through the agency.

They started making heat maps out of the complaints, so you can actually run the data and say, "Wow, we're starting to get a lot of complaints on student loans. Student loans, huh. Wait, now let's analyze that again. Oh, they're all coming about one particular lender," and you tell the enforcement division about this. You tell the outreach division. It keeps the focus on the people the agency is supposed to serve. That's the key.

Then it’s, what kind of rules do you write? Do you write rules that go on forever and ever and ever and ever and ever, or do you try to write rules that, yeah, they don't cover every contingency, but they're fairly clear, they're fairly bright-line? Rules that most ordinary English speakers could read and understand?

Ezra Klein

I know you've got to get to your next appointment, so here's a question we use to end the podcast. What are three books you'd recommend to the audience?

Elizabeth Warren

Evicted. Have you read it?

Ezra Klein

By Matthew Desmond? Yes, fantastic.

Elizabeth Warren

God, it is. It’s a book that tells you about housing and why housing is one way to understand how the world works.

$2 a Day [by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer]. It gives another vision of how hard it is trying to make it from day to day to day when you're poor.

My third, how about The Little Engine That Could?