As Vice President Joe Biden reportedly mulls a bid for the U.S. presidency, his champions portray him as a credible alternative to Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton, who faces accusations that she is beholden to the financial industry. But a Biden campaign risks confronting the scorn of one of the party’s most influential progressives, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Though Biden has reportedly sought her favor, Warren has historically disdained, charging him with acting as a tool of the credit card industry by limiting debt relief for people grappling with financial troubles.
As a Harvard law professor in 2002, Warren published a journal article excoriating Biden for playing a leading role in delivering legislation that made it more difficult for Americans to reduce debts through bankruptcy filings. His repeated push for the bill -- signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005 -- amounted to “vigorous support of legislation that hurts women,” Warren declared. She said "the group that will be most affected by the changes in the bankruptcy legislation Senator Biden so forcefully supports will be women, particularly women heads of household who are supporting children." She called Biden a “zealous advocate on behalf of one of his biggest contributors,” singling out the credit card industry, which has a strong presence in Biden’s home state of Delaware.
In a separate 2003 book she co-authored with her daughter, Warren said, “Senators like Joe Biden should not be allowed to sell out women in the morning and be heralded as their friend in the evening.”
In a statement to International Business Times, Biden's spokesman, Stephen Spector, said: "Throughout his career, the vice president has been a champion for middle-class families and has fought against powerful interests. As a senator, he succeeded in making the bipartisan bankruptcy bill fairer by demanding protections to help low-income workers, veterans, members of the military, women and children -- despite opposition from the largest employer in his state."
In recent years, Biden has developed a public image that contrasts with his role as a lawmaker spearheading legislation to help the financial industry fortify its power over debtors. As vice president, he has cast himself as an ally of the Democratic Party’s so-called Warren wing. He has chaired the White House’s Middle Class Task Force, and has said he believes “credit card companies can’t continue to trap consumers with hidden fees or retroactive rate increases.”
“It’s a very different thing being a senator than it is being a vice president or presidential candidate,” Biden’s former economic aide Jared Bernstein told IBTimes. “It’s important for people to judge all of his positions -- they are germane to evaluating where he’s coming from. But that said, I think being vice president throughout the financial crisis was a real education in the extent to which underregulation of that sector can blow things up. I’m not saying that Joe Biden is Liz Warren by a long shot, but I think it would be a mistake to conclude that he didn’t learn a lot having gone through the financial meltdown from his position in the administration.”
Bernstein advocated against the bankruptcy bill in the early 2000s before he worked for Biden and said "I believe I was right" to oppose it. He told IBTimes the legislation never came up in his discussions with the vice president.
Biden earlier this month met with Warren, a Wall Street critic who is well known among Democratic voters and who has deep connections to liberal grassroots groups, some of which have urged her to run for president. The meeting was widely seen as an effort by Biden to try to convince the Massachusetts lawmaker to support his prospective White House bid.
Warren’s 2002 writings, however, may complicate that effort both because her criticism was specifically targeted at Biden and because the criticism revolved around an issue that cuts to the heart of Democratic voters’ concerns over the growing political power of the financial sector.
Warren’s office declined to answer IBTimes' questions.
In Warren’s 2002 review of Biden, who served as Delaware’s senator for 36 years, she said he played a “crucial” role in passing the bankruptcy legislation over the objections of unions, consumer groups and women’s organizations. The bill was backed by major credit card companies, including MBNA, which is headquartered in Delaware and whose employees collectively became Biden’s top campaign contributor. The firm also hired Biden’s son, Hunter, as a consultant.
“His energetic work on behalf of the credit card companies has earned him the affection of the banking industry and protected him from any well-funded challengers for his Senate seat,” Warren wrote of Biden.
Spector, the vice president's spokesperson, asserted that Biden shaped the bankruptcy bill to specifically help women, working "to make child support and alimony a priority in the bill by ensuring continuity of child care payments."
In her 2002 article, though, Warren accused Biden of playing an especially pernicious role in pressing the legislation, harnessing his reputation as an advocate for the interests of working women to curry the support of interest groups that would otherwise have opposed the bill. In Warren’s account, Biden exploited the fact that he was a supporter of a separate bill to combat violence against women while trying to focus public attention on the alimony provisions in the bankruptcy measure. His support for the bankruptcy legislation, she said, provided crucial political cover that enabled other lawmakers to support the measure and avoid criticism from women’s groups.
“He has shielded his colleagues on both sides of the aisle from being branded as anti-women for their support of this legislation,” Warren wrote. “Senator Biden can publicly support one very visible piece of legislation on behalf of women, satisfying his duty and assuring the loyal support of millions of women. He is then free to be a zealous advocate on behalf of one of his biggest contributors, the financial services industry, and still position himself as a champion for women.”
Years after Warren’s article, she sparred with Biden over the bankruptcy bill during a hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to a recent Huffington Post report.
Warren was elected to the Senate in 2012, after serving as the chairwoman of a congressionally appointed watchdog panel that oversaw federal spending on the 2008 bank bailout. Warren also proposed and helped the Obama administration establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a watchdog agency created as part of Wall Street reform legislation passed in 2010.