A book reading by Sen. Elizabeth Warren can sometimes be hard to distinguish from a campaign rally. The Massachusetts Democrat and financial services industry watchdog received two rounds of standing ovations as she mounted the stage at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble last week to promote her new memoir, "A Fighting Chance".
The price of admission-a hardcover copy of the book, purchased at the store's first-floor registers for $24.39-ensured that the peanut gallery was composed of serious Warren aficionados. Groans flooded the room when the first-term senator denied having her sights set on the White House.
Indeed, much of Warren's talk suggested that a different target looms large in her sightlines: the big banks that she says continue to exert undue influence over both the political system and the lives of ordinary Americans.
"Washington works for those who can hire an army of lobbyists and lawyers," Warren said. "It doesn't work so well for families. I saw it with the big banks. They cheated American families, crashed the economy, got bailed out and now the big five banks are 38% bigger than they were in 2008."
The banks "still swagger through Washington, blocking reforms and pushing around agencies," Warren said. "They still break the law and no one goes to jail. That is wrong."
These criticisms were echoed in a memoir passage Warren shared with the audience-a section detailing her role in the launch of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the wake of the financial crisis. Warren described how a malfunctioning toaster oven that nearly caused a kitchen fire in her home three decades ago became an apt metaphor for the need for stronger bank oversight.
"While working on an article about how the government could protect consumers from predatory financial companies, I thought about those old toaster ovens," Warren said. "By then, it was all but impossible to buy a toaster that had a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But by the 2000s, it was possible to refinance a home with a mortgage that had a one-in-five chance of costing a family their home and putting them out on the street."
The injustice of these lending practices brought Warren to Washington at the height of the financial crisis, she said. The senator said that she pushed for the CFPB with the hope that "big banks that cheated families by loading up credit cards and mortgages with tricks could be brought under control."
Although the CFPB has come under public scrutiny in recent months for apparent racial disparities in its evaluation of employees, Warren was upbeat about the agency's achievements. The CFPB "has already forced the biggest financial institutions to return more than $3 billion to customers that they cheated and tricked," Warren said. "That is real change."
Warren's outspoken censure of the financial services industry would have been likely to ruffle a few feathers in a more suit-and-tie-prone audience. The Barnes & Noble crowd, however-a sea of spectacles, plaid button-downs and Kindles-appeared perfectly at peace with the senator's remarks.
The audience's vocal cheering also seemed to indicate that they were on board with Warren's other talking points, which included the rising cost of college tuition, booming student loan debt and the need for minimum wage increases. Warren's passion for each of these issues arises from her desire to defend the public interest from the machinations of the rich and powerful, she said.
During her time in the Senate, Warren hopes to "level the playing field," she said. "We cannot give up and let it be the case that those who can hire the armies of lobbyists get all the rules written in their direction."