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How Obama helped Hillary Clinton fend off Elizabeth Warren

Chip Somodevilla

The New Republic's Noam Scheiber just published a fascinating article describing how Obama's Democratic Party is preparing to become Hillary Clinton's Democratic Party. In reporting the piece, Scheiber spoke to former staffers for both Obama and Clinton, but also to the grassroots supporters who powered Obama's rise, like his precinct captains in Iowa. The picture that emerged from Scheiber's reporting wasn't just a Democratic Party that was ready for Hillary, but one that had grown cynical under Obama — and thus would be less susceptible to a charismatic newcomer like Elizabeth Warren.

We spoke on Monday, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: The most fascinating argument of your piece, to me, was that the new, post-partisan approach to politics that Barack Obama sold in 2008 has been effectively discredited by Obama's presidency, and as such, Hillary Clinton's more old-school approach to getting things done in Washington has become more appealing to frustrated Democrats.

Noam Scheiber: It's strange. I would talk to people about the profile of the kind of candidate that excited them and often that would be an Elizabeth Warren style populist. They yearn for someone who wants to change the system. But then I would ask them who they actually support in 2016 and they all said Hillary Clinton.

At first those things didn't seem to track. But when you pressed, they would say, ‘I love Elizabeth Warren but I don't think she can change Washington.' And when you pressed further it was about disappointment in President Obama. I talked to 10 Obama precinct captains from Iowa. Watching the system not change really made an impact on these people. I don't think they want to get burned again.

EK: It's interesting because you really could have imagined another reaction to Obama's presidency. One argument would be that he never really tried to change Washington; he named Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff and Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State and he focused on getting things like the stimulus and Obamacare through the political process as it exists now rather than trying to pass things like campaign-finance reform that might have changed that process. There could have been an argument here that Obama was right the first time, but he didn't follow-through.

NS: Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton made this kind of snide, but in retrospect apt, critique of Obama where she said that Obama thinks he'll get to Washington and the heavens will part and the Republicans will cooperate, but that just won't happen. So I asked some of these Obama supporters if she was right. And a lot of these people remembered those comments and being annoyed by them. But they all said she was actually a bit right. We were a bit naive then, they said. People used the word naive a lot in these conversations.

EK: Your piece is based on the idea that Hillary Clinton is this dominant frontrunner. But we saw that in 2006 and 2007, too, and it turned out that the dominance was mostly a function of the campaign not starting yet. So what makes you confident her sky-high poll numbers aren't bubble driven by her distance from politics and the fact that her challengers haven't gone through the stature-raising process of the campaign yet?

NS: In some ways the 2008 cycle was more the anomaly and now we're reverting to history. In 2008, there was a Republican in power in the White House and that meant that Republicans weren't as focused on the Clintons as these hated, conspiratorial figures. At the same time, Hillary had spent the last few years making nice with Republicans in the Senate. So structurally it wasn't really a moment when Republicans were going to come after her.

I think the perverse consequence of that was Democrats were less sympathetic to her. They become more sympathetic to her when they see her being unfairly attacked by Republicans. So what will happen as we go forward is Republicans will resume that posture. We'll have all these conspiratorial theories about her age and health and role in Benghazi and that will help her with Democrats.

EK: One of the odder parts of your piece, I thought, was the section where you imagined a Hillary Clinton presidency and asserted she would fill the Treasury Department with veterans of Wall Street. It raised, for me, one of the great unanswered questions lurking behind all discussion of Hillary right now: what has she learned since 2008? We know what she thought and who she trusted then, but we don't really know what she thinks now.

NS: I think we should expect Hillary will have learned a lot. She gets into the weeds on policy. She's a shrewd politician. But I would break it into two parts.

She definitely senses which way history is going, which way the party is going, and what good public policy is. And so I think she would be more populist on economic questions like expanding the social safety net and strengthening unions and bolstering workplace protections. I think she would be good on that stuff and she would intuit correctly there's a hunger for these things.

But I think that on the kind of one-percent questions — breaking up the megabanks, being tougher on financial crime, raising the capital gains tax, raising the tax on dividend income — I think she would get that the base of the party, and maybe the country, has moved on that. But I think there would be structural limitations to how far she could go, partly because of the sheer volume of money you have to raise to get elected president. But partly because of the residue of decades and decades of relationships in the financial sector. If you spend a lot of time with people you like and think are smart it's hard to believe their ideas are dumb.

EK: I think the Obama administration raises an interesting staffing challenge for Clinton. If she's president, she's going to want to show she's not just continuing the Obama administration. But the Obama administration leaned so heavily on Clinton administration staffers that the obvious hires for Clinton would just reconstitute Obama's White House.

NS: I think that's exactly right. Obama had no real attachment to most of these Clinton guys. But there are literally hundreds of jobs in the economic policymaking apparatus of a presidential administration. If you aren't drawing from people in past administrations pretty soon you run out of those people. So think of how hard it was for Obama to resist that gravitational pull and then look at Clinton who does have personal relationships with them. It strikes me as very unlikely that they won't end up in her administration.

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