Warren’s first post-election answer left plenty of room for speculation. “I will work with anyone who’s out there to fight for America’s working families,” she told reporters before retreating home to sleep.
“Democrat, Republican, independent, Libertarian, contrarian — it doesn’t matter.”
Among the models for how Warren might approach her role as a senator from Massachusetts, the one most often mentioned is that of the state’s late liberal icon, Edward M. Kennedy. He was a reliable voice for the left who also got things done, partnering, for instance, with George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on immigration policy.
And there is the model offered by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had even more star power than Warren and was, at first, viewed with suspicion by many of the GOP senators she eventually won over with dogged hard work.
There is another possibility, too, which is that Warren — a distinctive, quasi-populist figure at a transitional moment in politics — might forge a different path altogether.
“I wouldn’t point to any former senator as the model for what she does,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which launched the Draft Warren campaign in July 2011 to persuade her to run. “She is Elizabeth Warren.”
What is certain is that among new lawmakers heading to Washington in January, few carry the particular kind of popularity, hope and sheer expertise that the folksy Harvard law professor does. The question is how she will express her fiery progressivism in the deliberative body, where deference and seniority are often prized more than bravado.
There is also the question of her relationship with the White House — whether she will follow President Obama’s lead or try to nudge him to the left — and with a Democratic Party often accused of lacking spine.
“I don’t think she will disappoint anyone,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), speculating sarcastically about the expectations Warren faces. “There will be not one single person disappointed by anything she does or anything she says. Not one.”
Once an obscure academic studying bankruptcy law, Warren did not court the spotlight so much as the spotlight courted her — first as one of the nation’s preeminent chroniclers of middle-class decline and then as the outspoken head of a congressional panel established to oversee the 2008 Wall Street bailout. She perhaps gained the most notoriety when she set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
With her rolled-up blazer sleeves and wire-rimmed glasses, she was loved and reviled as the wonky, self-described champion of consumers against big-bank interests, often saying that as a tenured Harvard professor, she had little to lose by sticking her neck out.