The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Warren says improving economy not trickling down to most Americans

At the AFL-CIO's National Summit on Raising Wages, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) described how her childhood shaped her view of the minimum wage. (Video: YouTube: AFL-CIO)

At a moment when President Obama is seeking to convince Americans that the economy is finally back on track, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) delivered a major address Wednesday in which she argued that average Americans are being left behind because Washington has failed them.

In a speech to an AFL-CIO conference in Washington, Warren ticked off a list of upbeat indicators: Corporate profits and economic growth are up, the unemployment rate is down, inflation remains low and the stock market is booming.

“But the overall picture doesn’t tell us much about what’s happening at ground level to tens of millions of Americans,” she said. “Despite these cheery numbers, America’s middle class is in deep trouble.”

Warren’s speech before the union’s National Summit on Raising Wages had been scheduled more than a month ago, but the timing turned out to be awkward. It fell on the day that Obama was set to visit Detroit to highlight the recovery of the auto industry.

That event is part of a warm-up lap around the country before his Jan. 20 State of the Union address. The president also will stop in Phoenix on Thursday to draw attention to the resurgence of the housing market, and will discuss education and jobs during a visit to Tennessee on Friday.

“A lot of broad national economic statistics say our economy is getting better, and it is true that the economy overall is recovering from the terrible crash of 2008,” Warren said. “But there have been deep structural changes in this economy, changes that have gone on for more than 30 years, changes that have cut out hard-working, middle-class families from sharing in this overall growth.”

Warren faulted Washington — including leaders of her own party — for buying into “trickle-down policies,” such as deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy, that she said benefited corporations and the wealthy in hopes that they “could be counted on to create an economy that would work for everyone else.”

Nothing in Warren’s critique was new. But it comes as many liberals are hoping that she will reconsider her previous declarations that she will not challenge likely candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

The organization last month announced the start of what it says will be a $1 million campaign by its members to draft Warren.

Warren — an outspoken critic of Wall Street’s coziness with Washington — is admired by many in the party’s base for her ability to frame an argument that the system is rigged against the interests of ordinary workers. That kind of message, some say, is what was missing during the 2014 midterm elections, which turned out to be a disaster for Democrats.

Such is Warren’s appeal — and her fundraising abilities — that Senate Democrats created a new position in their leadership for the first-term senator from Massachusetts.

But that effort to bring her inside the tent has not made her any less willing to engage in battles, even against more senior figures in her party.

In the waning days of the lame-duck session, she fought a spending bill that included a provision to weaken part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that tightened oversight of Wall Street. She also is a leading opponent of the White House’s bid to nominate investment banker Antonio Weiss for a top position at the Treasury Department.