Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren didn’t know each other extremely well until March. They’d been crossing paths for well over a decade, most uncomfortably in 2005 at a Capitol Hill hearing, where they collided over bankruptcy law and the Delaware senator called the Harvard Law professor’s argument “very compelling and mildly demagogic,” and most closely ten years later at Biden’s official residence in D.C. There, the VP secretly told Senator Warren he would want her as his running mate if he ran for president in 2016. For all their mutual respect, when they finally shared a debate stage in September 2019, it wasn’t exactly chummy.
So when Warren and Biden spoke on the phone shortly before she dropped out of the presidential race early this year, there was every reason to believe it was a pro forma one-off — even after he embraced her bankruptcy policy in March, a move then widely seen as a gambit to win her endorsement and the support of Bernie Sanders voters. But as winter became spring and the primary wound down, Biden started considering the general election against Donald Trump. And the calls — iPhone to iPhone, sometimes without aides on the line — kept coming.
Plenty of Democrats close to Biden were surprised at first. Traditionally, an old-school party-Establishment nominee would be expected to first reach out to the political center, not a liberal favorite known for her vision of progressive populist change.
By April, though, Biden had begun wrestling with how to respond to the pandemic while shifting his proposals in scale to correspond with the disaster’s magnitude and to the left as he courted former Sanders and Warren voters. He moved toward Warren on student-loan-debt cancellation and expanding Social Security benefits, and the duo began talking a few times a month to work through ways to ensure Americans got economic relief. “Certainly, at this point, the immediate needs of the country are greater than they seemed a year ago and the extent of the crisis is sharp. All of that has changed, and his thinking is changing along with it,” says Richard Cordray, a close Warren ally who directed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after she created it and who has been advising Biden, too. In May, Biden and Warren found they were both somewhat obsessed with watchdogging the Trump administration’s recovery spending, and they co-authored an op-ed demanding more effective oversight. “They have a pretty close working relationship,” says Cordray. “Both health-care and consumer-protection issues — economic vulnerability — are very much up her alley.”
By late spring, Biden and Warren’s catch-ups were still being organized primarily as policy discussions, but they sometimes veered into personal territory, as when Biden rang after Warren’s elder brother died of COVID-19 in Oklahoma. And as the summer matured, some of Warren’s top former campaign aides officially joined Team Biden, helping the former vice-president build up his digital operation and slotting into leadership roles in a couple of battleground states. In mid-June, Warren headlined a fund-raiser for Biden that brought in $6 million, making it his campaign’s single most lucrative event to that point. “We’re so lucky to have you on the front line,” Biden told Warren, whose golden retriever, Bailey, could be seen behind her on the private Zoom stream.
Warren is hardly Biden’s sole policy-whisperer. Cordray points out that Biden’s signature style is to gather a wide array of advice from across the party before committing to a path, and the nominee hired plenty of staffers from other campaigns, too, including Kamala Harris’s, Pete Buttigieg’s, and Beto O’Rourke’s. And within Biden’s inner circle, Warren has no shortage of skeptics who remain unconvinced by her progressive politics.
Now Democrats close to Warren and Biden acknowledge there’s still a chance he might pick her to be his running mate, but they doubt she’d get the nod for any other Cabinet role despite being floated for Treasury secretary and attorney general. What does seem to have emerged is an understanding between two skilled politicians: one an expert at reading the country’s mood, the other an expert at exerting leverage.
It’s true that history is littered with senators who returned to Washington after failed presidential campaigns only to fall short of their promises to influence the incoming administration from the outside; one former senior Obama official recently rolled his eyes when I brought up the idea that any senator, even a popular former candidate, could have a sustained influence on a new administration. But, he allowed, it’s easy to see how Warren’s position could be different: She is an economic-policy-oriented 71-year-old unlikely to run for president again, and she is eager to use the levers of power she saw up close during the Obama years.
Plenty of Democratic senators are now working out what their roles would be parallel to a Biden administration. Some are straightforward: Chuck Schumer, for example, would presumably continue to lead the Democratic Party in the chamber, helping make sure senators are in line with the White House on important votes. Warren, who is now far more famous than many of her colleagues, could clearly serve as a powerful voice of support for White House policy on economic-recovery or public-health measures. But she could also use her platform to call public attention to administration moves she disagrees with, applying political pressure that the Biden team — already wary of the party’s left flank — would be eager to avoid, especially on issues like health-care reform. Biden well knows how willing Warren was to work with the last Democratic White House on her policy priorities — in his 2014 memoir, even Tim Geithner praised his “productive working relationship” with Warren — and sometimes confront it. It took her less than two months in the Senate to go viral for ripping into Obama’s bank regulators for not considering jailing financial executives. “I’m really concerned that ‘too big to fail’ has become ‘too big for trial,’ ” she said in February 2013.
Now much of Warren’s recent work with Biden has been on proposals for the matter likely to take up plenty of his first term in office: recovery from the coronavirus. As Biden has laid out his plans, Warren has outlined her own priorities, including massive new funding for local governments as well as passing an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights.”
Close Warren watchers expect her to try to exert another kind of influence on an incoming Biden presidency in the meantime. Warren has long been known in Washington for saying that “personnel is policy”: As early as January 2015, a top Warren aide met with a Hillary Clinton adviser to warn about the role of finance-industry-friendly allies in the candidate’s campaign and prospective administration. The message was clear, especially since Warren had just helped tank Obama’s nomination of a Wall Street banker to be third-in-command at the Treasury Department. And by late 2016, she and some allies had drawn up a loose list of such people she would oppose if Clinton were to tap them for her administration, remembering — painfully—how the advisory board for Obama’s presidential transition had included a sitting Citigroup exec.
So far, it looks like Biden is listening.
In late June, the ex-VP announced he had started building his own transition team, naming half a dozen senior hires to work with one of his closest confidants to begin shaping his administration. Two were joining from the House of Representatives, where they had been top aides to powerful elected officials. Three were former Biden staffers or alums of Obama’s government. And the sixth was coming onboard directly from the Senate: She was Warren’s top economic-policy adviser.
*This article appears in the August 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!