Elizabeth Warren © Susan Walsh-AP

Related topics: banking, credit cards, politics, customer service, Liz Weston

When I asked Elizabeth Warren last week how she'd like to be remembered, I expected her to cite one or more of her professional accomplishments. Perhaps:

Her groundbreaking research as a Harvard law professor with the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, which exposed the fragility of many American families' finances, or her best-selling books that sprang from that research, "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke" and "All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan."

Or her role as head of the Congressional Oversight Panel, which investigated the bank bailout, criticized how rescue funds were used and suggested ending the notion of "too big to fail" by liquidating insolvent banks.

Or her current job putting together the fledging Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she championed and which she believes, had it existed earlier, could have prevented the financial crisis by blunting the growth of subprime mortgage lending to unsophisticated borrowers.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

But no. After first asking for a rain check to consider my question, the former Sunday school teacher blurted out that what she'd really like to be known for is being "a good granny" to her three young grandchildren, whom she was flying to see in California the next day.

Warren, 61, has a way of confounding expectations. Bankers so loathed her for her criticism of their industry that naming Warren as the director of the consumer protection bureau was considered politically untenable last year. President Barack Obama instead hired her as a special assistant to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, which didn't require congressional confirmation.

But recently, in what The Wall Street Journal and others have called a "charm offensive," Warren has been reassuring groups of bankers that what she wants is more transparency, not necessarily more regulation, which the Oklahoma native likens to fences on a prairie that lawyers can easily dodge around.

She has also been soliciting the opinions of credit card companies' CEOs. In our conversation, she cited Nigel Morris, a co-founder of Capital One, as someone who "thoughtfully talks about how the thing works, how decisions are made."

"It's been people like Nigel, who are on the inside," Warren said, "who've helped me understand the role the regulation should play to keep a market free, to make a market competitive."

Warren's corner office at the Treasury Building looks out on two of D.C.'s best-known icons: She can see the Capitol from one window and the Washington Monument from another. These are visual reminders of just how far she's come, from studying the lives of financially desperate families to wrestling with some of the most financially powerful special interests.

Competition is not an excuse for deception

It remains to be seen whether Warren can blunt the antipathy that bankers feel toward her in time to be named the head of the bureau by its July 21 launch date. Meanwhile, House Republicans still are looking for ways to gut the agency's funding. They're convinced that an agency devoted to protecting consumers from unsafe and deceptive financial products will squash innovation and kill jobs.

Warren, obviously, doesn't see it that way. Rather than tying lenders up in regulatory vines that prevent them from competing, she wants to see clearer disclosure and less fine print, which she famously likens to shrubbery in which the "muggers" of hidden fees and other anti-consumer "gotchas" can hide.

"A competitive market is one where the competition is not about how many things you can hide in the fine print," she said. "A competitive market is one where the consumer sees the differences, and so people are competing to attract the consumer. That's the whole difference."

The role of the bureau, Warren says, will be "to ask the questions, gather the data and to monitor the markets to make sure they work for consumers."

The credit card market, for example, has always been competitive, she said -- but not competitive in a way that necessarily benefited consumers. Instead, card companies competed for how much revenue they could produce.

"And the smartest way to do that had over time become to pretend to sell at a low price at the front end and then sock people hard on the back end with fees and interest rate repricing," Warren said. "The difficulty, of course, with doing that is that the consumer can't ask two basic questions: 'Can I really afford this?' and 'Could I get it somewhere else cheaper?'"