Elizabeth Warren: What will Obama's 'you didn't build that' ally say to DNC?

Elizabeth Warren may fill two roles at the DNC: a champion of the little guy who fires up the base and someone who presents Democrats as the mainstream alternative to the party of the rich.

Stephan Savoia/AP
President Barack Obama leans in to kiss Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren after she introduced Obama before he addresses supporters during a June campaign fundraiser at Symphony Hall in Boston.

When Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren addresses the Democratic National Convention, a big question will be how much of her fiery populist rhetoric she'll bring on stage.

Ms. Warren, after all, is known as the champion of the little guy against big Wall Street banks – and more recently as someone linked to President Obama's controversial "you didn't build that" line about private sector business people.

But the Harvard professor and Massachusetts candidate, whose role at the DNC was announced Monday, is also going to give remarks that serve as an introduction to former President Bill Clinton, the centrist whose role is partly to convey the message that Democrats aren't the radical leftists that Republican attack ads often portray.

The early September speech will also come as Warren ramps up her own fall campaign efforts, with independent-minded voters holding the key to that Senate seat in the Bay State.

Don't be surprised, then, to hear Warren appeal to both worlds – firing up the Democratic base in the convention hall while also framing the party's views as a mainstream counterpoint to Republicans gone wild favoring the rich.

Warren already has a high profile on the national stage, loved (and showered with money) by many liberals even as she is ridiculed on the right. The recent "you didn't build that" controversy is the latest evidence of those firmly set views.

Here's what Obama said at a July 13 campaign event in Roanoke, Va., which has stirred an uproar from his critics:

"If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own," the president said. "There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen."

The theme that America is about "we" as well as "I" is a longstanding one for Obama, but his comment also echoed notes that Warren has been hitting.

"You built a factory out there? Good for you," she said last year. "But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."

She went on to say people who build factories should be able to "keep a big hunk" of wealth, but should also pay a hunk in taxes. Similarly, Obama gave a nod to the importance of "individual initiative," while also calling for higher taxes on the top-earning 2 percent.

Democrats say that, taken in context, the words of Obama and Warren aren't anti-business.

Republicans disagree, arguing that their comments show scant respect for the individual effort and risk-taking that results in job growth.

Sen. Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent Warren is challenging, released a video July 23 that folds the Warren and Obama comments together, and appeals to "Let America be America again."

The web ad contrasts those statements from the current election cycle with quotations supporting free enterprise from five other presidents since 1960 – three Democrats and two Republicans. Then Senator Brown says, "I will never demonize you as business owners and business leaders."

This battle over how to talk about the private sector and the role of government could remain a hot one, since it ties into the election's central issue for voters: how to best ensure a strong US economy and job creation.

The Brown video ad has drawn more than a million views barely a week after the campaign put it up on YouTube. And Warren will have a lot of listeners on TV when she speaks in August. The politically important question is: Whose message will resonate more with swing voters?

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