Person of Interest: Elizabeth Warren

She's always said America needed a consumer protection agency. Now she runs it.

elizabeth warren

Photo by Nigel Parry

ELIZABETH WARREN is not easily satisfied. She’s argued for ages that Washington could better protect people from predatory lenders, yet when Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to do just that, it still wasn’t enough for her. “At every point that I thought would be labeled a success,” Warren says, “I’ve seen more work to do.” Now that President Obama has charged her with getting the agency going, Warren has new goals, like ensuring people don’t need MBAs to understand their credit card agreements, and making it so that mortgages are better regulated than the average toaster oven.

For Warren, helping families in economic distress is personal. Growing up in Oklahoma, she watched her parents scrape by in low-wage jobs to provide for their kids. “They showed me that’s where it all begins,” she says. “That every macro-economic statistic is ultimately about families.” Her academic research on bankruptcy took her to a job at Harvard Law, where she warned that building an economy on overlending would end in disaster. She was right, of course, and Congress wound up drafting her to watch over the $700 billion bank bailout.

Settling into her second Washington job, Warren admits the workings of the town still mystify her. “I fundamentally don’t understand this place,” she says. “Conversations I thought would be about substance – about what’s the right thing to do – turn out to be about who gets the bigger budget.”

It’s certainly a different life than back home in Cambridge, where she spent evenings strolling around Fresh Pond with her husband, Harvard Law professor Bruce Mann. He’ll be joining her at semester’s end – assuming he can get their golden retriever to lose a few pounds first. (“Our apartment has a weight limit on dogs,” Warren says, “so we’re teaching him to suck in his cheeks.”)

Right now, though, Warren is focused on a different sort of watchdog – the agency that will fix the broken rules of consumer lending. “I hope we’re going to do our part for families,” she says. “We’ve got to make this better.”