Elizabeth Warren
Credit: Elizabeth Warren/Flickr

Polls continue to show that Joe Biden is the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. But the betting market has a different favorite. Predictit shows Elizabeth Warren leading Biden by double digits, as does the betting average at Real Clear Politics. According to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight, Warren boosted her campaign at the last debate and is showing signs of becoming a consensus candidate.

At the end of her opening remarks at the Democratic debate in Houston, Warren did a good job of summarizing the overriding message of her campaign.

She said, “I know what’s broken. I know how to fix it. And I’m going to lead the fight to get it done.”

A lot of people have weighed in on whether they think that Warren has accurately identified what’s broken, as well as whether her plans are up to the task of fixing it. But given that it is very possible that Elizabeth Warren could be the Democratic nominee in 2020, it is important to also examine what kind of president she might be—specifically, how she will fight to get her agenda done.

A recent article by Alex Thompson purports to be about previous conflicts between Warren and the Obama administration. While it doesn’t shed much new light on that topic, it does tell us some things about how the senator from Massachusetts has handled herself in the past.

After employing fiery rhetoric against Wall Street during her time as head of the commission overseeing the distribution of TARP funds, a lot of people were surprised by Warren’s performance when Obama asked her to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) while Richard Cordray—the eventual director—went through the nomination and confirmation process.

But as she came in and began working, some administration officials felt like there were “two Warrens.” In public, she was all righteous fury. In private, they say, they often saw a more reasonable figure…

Even those most critical of Warren say she brandished her pragmatism more than her populism while at Treasury and say she was effective as a result. She readily brought in some top Treasury officials and her first hires for the consumer agency were a surprising mix of people from financial-services firms like Capital One and Morgan Stanley along with bureaucrats and academics. The inspector general, whose job is to find problems, was rather complimentary of Warren’s tenure. Some former officials also say they were impressed at the administration skills of an academic with almost no management experience.

Back in 2015, Ryan Lizza noted that Warren’s pragmatism was also on display when she worked with Barney Frank to ensure that the CFPB was included in the Dodd-Frank bill to reform Wall Street. Doing so involved working with Camden Fine, head of the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), a group that is considered to be one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.

As the Dodd-Frank bill made its way through Congress, in 2010, Fine’s willingness to tolerate [the CFPB] was crucial. With Warren’s blessing, Barney Frank, who sponsored the bill in the House, negotiated a deal with Fine that allowed community banks to be examined by their current regulators rather than by Warren’s new agency. “They were the ones with the clout, and that’s why I had to make a deal with Cam,” Frank told me. Warren signed off on it. “She was willing to do what she had to do as long as it didn’t give away substance,” Frank said. “Every time we came to one of those things where, to save the great bulk of the bill, we had to make some kind of concession, she understood it and was very helpful in selling it.”

Those examples can seem a bit incongruous to people who have grown accustomed to Warren’s fiery rhetoric. But she demonstrated that she knows the difference between populist rhetoric and pragmatic action when Andrew Ross Sorkin challenged her on the question of whether Glass-Steagall would have prevented the 2008 financial crisis.

In my conversation with Ms. Warren she told me that one of the reasons she’s been pushing reinstating Glass-Steagall — even if it wouldn’t have prevented the financial crisis — is that it is an easy issue for the public to understand and “you can build public attention behind.”

She added that she considers Glass-Steagall more of a symbol of what needs to happen to regulations than the specifics related to the act itself.

It is Warren’s pragmatism that is also on display in this report from Jonathan Martin about her recent meetings with Democratic leaders.

Her point was easy to grasp: While her liberal agenda may be further left than some in the Democratic establishment would prefer, she is a team player who is seeking to lead the party — not stage a hostile takeover of it.

As Ms. Warren steadily rises in the polls she is working diligently to protect her left flank, lining up with progressives on nearly every issue and trying to defuse potential attacks from supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “I’m with Bernie,” she responds when asked about what is perhaps the most contentious issue of the primary race: “Medicare for all.”

Yet publicly, and even more in private, she is signaling to party leaders that, far from wanting to stage a “political revolution” in the fashion of Mr. Sanders, she wants to revive the beleaguered Democratic National Committee and help recapture the Senate while retaining the House in 2020.

All of this reminds me of something Howard Dean talked about with Sam Stein when discussing his own 2004 presidential candidacy. In identifying the reasons why it failed, he talked about his inability to pivot from insurgent to establishment.

[A]t the end of the day, if you are going to be president, you’ve got to look like one and I never quite could bring myself to do that.

[My supporters] were deeply invested in having somebody who wasn’t going to be putting up any with crap from the establishment. And having been a governor for six terms, I knew very well that the governor has to put up with crap from everybody. Your job is to make things work and that means that you can’t exclude people, whether you like them or not…

So I knew I had to make the turn. It was very, very hard and I didn’t successfully do it…It was really a tug of war.

These days people really hate the word “establishment.” But being president requires a complex set of skills. As an example, take a look at how the job was described by Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, during an interview with Fareed Zakaria.

NOOYI: Just imagine that you are the CEO of a company…and your executive team, half want you to succeed, half want you to fail.

ZAKARIA: Republicans and Democrats.

NOOYI: Yes. And then imagine that your functional team, you can’t hire them without the approval of your executive team.

ZAKARIA: Half of whom want you to fail.

NOOYI: That’s exactly right. Also imagine that every word you say is debated in the public media every minute of the day. Also remember that your board of directors is a fragmented group who really cannot get together to fire the executive team if they don’t tow your line.

ZAKARIA: The American public.

NOOYI: That’s exactly right. That’s the environment in which the president of the United States is working today.

Using Martin’s example of protecting her left flank by showing support for Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal, Warren recently demonstrated how she’s keeping the door open to a potential pivot on that issue when asked why she hasn’t released a health care plan herself.

It is true, Warren has supported several plans for health care reform.

The good news is that Elizabeth Warren obviously knows about the need for the kind of pivot described by Dean and has demonstrated that, in previous roles, she has been able to make the transition. That is precisely what makes her a better presidential candidate than Bernie Sanders, even when they agree on some of the issues. Warren is aware of what it takes to govern as an executive in a democracy.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.