Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Dr. Phil

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On Friday, the President added a new line to his regular “fair share” repertoire on tax burdens and wealth distribution. “We do not begrudge wealth in this country. We aspire to financial success,” he said in a Michigan speech on college tuition, as he has countless times before. “But we also understand that we’re not successful just by ourselves. We’re successful because somebody started the University of Michigan. We’re successful because somebody made an investment in all the federal research labs that created the Internet. We’re successful because we have an outstanding military. That costs money. We’re successful because somebody built roads and bridges and laid broadband lines. And these things didn’t just happen on their own,” he said before returning to his pro-forma lines: “And if we all understand that we’ve got to pay for this stuff, it makes sense for those of us who’ve done best to do our fair share.”

That middle part’s new. And it’s an almost exact replica of the living room chat gone viral that launched Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign in Massachusetts, right down to the examples of roads and defense:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. 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. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

It says something about Warren’s populist knack for framing Democratic priorities that Obama’s cribbing her lines. And though she’s described as a grandmother from Oklahoma by her admirers and a Harvard elitist by her detractors, it’s possible this skill comes neither from her folksy roots nor the cloisters of Cambridge–after all, Obama’s no stranger to a humble upbringing or the Harvard Yard. As David Bernstein writes in the Boston Pheonix, Warren actually found her public voice through a ridiculed guest gig on Dr. Phil’s daytime talk show and by authoring several pop personal finance books.

At the time, she says, not all of her colleagues in the hallowed halls of academia were quite so impressed with her new direction. Many looked down their noses at her TV exploits. Some economists (Megan McArdle of the Atlantic, for one) publicly disputed her key arguments. Her name even vanished from the New York Times for five years, last appearing a month before her first Dr. Phil appearance, and not showing up again until Congress appointed her to a bank-bailout oversight commission in December 2008, according to an archive search.

And you don’t have to be a Harvard fellow to find something mockable in her work from the time, which combines motivational-style cheerleading, tough-love lectures, and checklist-oriented advice.

One can imagine the professorial eyes rolling as Warren walks Dr. Phil subjects “Wendy and Matt” through a “financial fire drill,” or promises “Dawn and Trent” that they can be debt-free in two years. And few people within the ivied walls produce books with lines like: “Are you ready to start on your path to a lifetime of riches?”

Nobody’s laughing now.

Update: And yet here Warren displays an almost Romney-esque level of tin-earedness on personal wealth. In an interview on whether investing by members of Congress should be restricted, she dropped this head-spinner: “I realize there are some wealthy individuals – I’m not one of them, but some wealthy individuals who have a lot of stock portfolios.” It’s not really clear whether “I’m not one of them” refers to being wealthy or having a lot of stocks, but Warren undoubtedly checks both boxes: her six-figure income put her in the top %1 of earners last year, she owns $3 million+ in investments and lives in a $1-$5 million home. So, uh, yeah, she is “one of them.”

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