“I learned early on what debt means, how vulnerable it makes people, what the security of owning a home means,” Ms. Warren said, her eyes welling. Even today, said Ms. Warren’s daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, her mother is so frugal that she eats shriveled grapes out of the fruit bowl.
Six years ago, Ms. Warren was one of the few guests at a Harvard Law School faculty reception for Barack Obama, an alumnus then running for a United States Senate seat in Illinois. He greeted her with two words: “predatory lending,” signaling he knew her work. He began to talk about dicey mortgages and abusive credit products and their shattering effect on families, Ms. Warren recalled. Finally, she cut him off.
“You had me at ‘predatory lending,’ ” she said. A few years later, Mr. Obama was promoting her idea for a consumer agency on the presidential campaign trail.
Meanwhile, in October 2008, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, called out of the blue and asked Ms. Warren to head Congressional oversight of the bank bailout. It was a vague job, sketched out in a hurry, but she interpreted her mandate aggressively. Instead of issuing standard monthly reports, she turned them into independent research projects, bulletins and videos asking pointed questions about Treasury’s treatment of the banks.
At the same time, banking lobbyists and other business-financed groups threw their weight against the consumer agency proposal — and they complained about Ms. Warren as well. (Wayne Abernathy, a lobbyist for the American Bankers Association, declined to comment for this article but recently asked if the TARP oversight panel had become “the new Warren commission.”)
“She comes at the world from the perspective that she knows what’s good for people,” said Douglas Baird, from University of Chicago Law School, who said he shared Ms. Warren’s concerns but not always her views. “She starts with a skepticism of markets and a skepticism of the ability of consumers to make sensible choices.”
The TARP project also complicated Ms. Warren’s ties to the Obama administration. The president lights up when her consumer protection ideas are discussed, according to Diana Farrell, deputy director of the National Economic Council. Likewise, David Axelrod, a White House senior adviser, effused about Ms. Warren in an interview by phone, using the word “passionate” over and over.
Her relationship with Treasury is chillier. In private, she has worked closely with some officials there on regulatory reform. But in her oversight role, she pounds the agency, leading some to accuse her of showboating or breeding cynicism about a program functioning better than many expected.
“I’m a thorn in this administration’s side as much as in the last administration’s side,” she said.
She will not comment on whether she might head the agency, for the same reason administration officials will not. “What we’re trying to do is build an institution that’s over and above any individual,” Ms. Farrell said.
Ms. Warren does say that if she and the administration lose on the agency’s passage, she’d like them to lose big — to force lawmakers, as she puts it, to leave “lots of blood and teeth” on the floor.
If that happens, Ms. Warren will still have her own platform, starting with her nearly constant stream of television appearances. Hosts and cameramen love her: she has the friendly face of a teacher, the pedigree of a top law professor, the moral force of a preacher and the plain-spoken twang of an Oklahoman.
“This is America’s middle class,” she recently said on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” “We’ve hacked at it and pulled at it and chipped at it for 30 years now, and now there’s no more to do. We fix this problem going forward, or the game really is over.”
“When you say it like that and you look at me like that, I know your husband is backstage, I still want to make out with you,” Mr. Stewart responded.
If no agency or government post materializes, Ms. Warren says she will happily return to Harvard. Others expect her to do more, including Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor who has come to know her through their shared interest in consumer advocacy.
“Plan B is to become Ralph Nader,” he said.
Ben Werschkul contributed reporting.