Elizabeth Warren Weighs In On 'You Didn't Build It'

On Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren will take the national stage when she speaks at the Democratic National Convention. Audie Cornish spoke with her about the origin of the now infamous "you didn't build that" phrase, the state of the economy and her close Senate race in Massachusetts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel here in Washington.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Democratic convention got under way today. On Thursday, President Obama formally accepts his party's nomination. Before then, a procession of speakers will attempt to lay out why Mr. Obama deserves a second term - among them, Elizabeth Warren. She's running against Scott Brown for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, and she's a favorite with party liberals. I asked her what she thinks is at stake in this election.

ELIZABETH WARREN: We can't continue to run this country so that the billionaires get the breaks, the big oil companies get the breaks, the hedge funds get the breaks, and there's no money left over to invest in education for our children, to repair roads and bridges, to build the kind of infrastructure that gives us a flourishing economy. This is really, for me, just a chance to talk about these issues on a bigger stage.

CORNISH: Now you've been described as someone who really is very closely aligned with the Obama administration's ideology and most sort of forceful arguments for these things you're talking about. But when you look at something like the you-didn't-build-that comment from President Obama, some of that was traced to an argument you made last summer in which you were saying that nobody in this country got rich on their own. Do you regret how that comment has played out in the end?

WARREN: You know, let's be clear here. The president has been - you know, what he said has been distorted, taken out of context. Everybody's seen the videos. I'm really shocked that the Republicans want to make a central argument for their election based on something that's just a misstatement of what the president was talking about. I really am because it's just wrong.

CORNISH: But at the same time, obviously there's something about this that's resonated with a business community that already is sour on the administration and feels as though this betrayed a kind of lack of understanding or kind of devaluing of private enterprise by the Democratic Party.

WARREN: Well, I think that's - I don't think that's right at all. I think what's happening is that the Republicans found a way to distort what the president said, and they thought they could exploit it for political advantage. And, you know, the fundamental pieces are there. What we're really talking about is how we put the right conditions in place so anybody who's got a good idea and who works hard will have a chance to expand their business, to grow a business, that we are in this together.

CORNISH: We've seen you talk on the trail in a kind of us-versus-them language. Which side are you on? Are you on the side of this? Are you on the side of that? And is that rhetoric alienating to voters?

WARREN: Look, I think that - I think this race is about whose side are you on. The economic vision that Mitt Romney has put forward and all the Republicans is cut taxes for the richest Americans and the biggest corporations, increase taxes for the middle class and cut back on the investments that help us build a future. The Democratic vision is the opposite of that. It says even the wealthiest should pay a fair share.

CORNISH: So then how does the party repair the relationship with the business community?

WARREN: Well, you know, I think there are a lot of different parts to the business community. The real question for me is whether you're talking about the businesses that can hire an army of lobbyists, or whether you're talking about the small businesses that really aren't profiting from what's happening right now in Washington.

Let me give you an example of that. The oil industry, the big five, made $137 billion in profits last year, and yet they continued to suck down billions of dollars in subsidies from the American taxpayer. That's not something that's helping them. It's not something that's helping small businesses. Small businesses, working families need to see that money going either into their own pockets or into investments in the future.

CORNISH: You've been making these arguments very forcefully in Massachusetts. You've raised or on track to raise records amount of money in your Senate race, and a lot of people are asking why that race is still so close.

WARREN: Yeah. I'm talking about the issues that drew me into this race. I'm talking about the urgency of this moment, the importance of the 2012 election.

CORNISH: But is something not resonating?

WARREN: All I can do is get out there and talk about it day after day after day. Our college kids are getting slammed. Our seniors are getting slammed. Working families are getting slammed. And America's middle class can't take this much longer. The foundations are starting to shake.

CORNISH: Well, Elizabeth Warren, thank you for speaking with me.

WARREN: You're welcome.

CORNISH: Elizabeth Warren talks at the Democratic convention tomorrow night. Tonight, the delegates will hear the keynote address given by Julian Castro. He's the young mayor of San Antonio and considered to be quite the up-and-comer in the Democratic Party. And, Melissa, they'll also hear from Michelle Obama.

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