Exclusive: Obama on Iowa, Clinton, Sanders and 2016
In an Oval Office interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast, the president offers his most expansive comments yet on the race to succeed him in the White House.
Barack Obama, that prematurely gray elder statesman, is laboring mightily to remain neutral during Hillary Clinton’s battle with Bernie Sanders in Iowa, the state that cemented his political legend and secured his path to the presidency.
But in a candid 40-minute interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast as the first flakes of the blizzard fell outside the Oval Office, he couldn’t hide his obvious affection for Clinton or his implicit feeling that she, not Sanders, best understands the unpalatably pragmatic demands of a presidency he likens to the world’s most challenging walk-and-chew-gum exercise.
“[The] one thing everybody understands is that this job right here, you don’t have the luxury of just focusing on one thing,” a relaxed and reflective Obama told me in his most expansive discussion of the 2016 race to date.
Iowa isn’t just a state on the map for Obama. It’s the birthplace of his hope-and-change phenomenon, “the most satisfying political period in my career,” he says — “what politics should be” — and a bittersweet reminder of how far from the garden he’s gotten after seven bruising years in the White House.
The caucuses have a fierce-urgency-of-now quality as Obama reckons with the end of his presidency — the kickoff of a process of choosing a Democratic successor he hopes can secure his as-yet unsecured legacy, to keep Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or somebody else from undoing much of what he has done. And he was convinced Clinton was that candidate, prior to the emergence of Sanders, friends and associates have told me over the past 18 months.
“Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose,” he said. “I think Hillary came in with the both privilege — and burden — of being perceived as the front-runner. … You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before — that’s a disadvantage to her.”
Even as he spoke wistfully of his 80-plus cold-pizza and crowded-van days in Iowa eight years ago, Obama seemed to embrace Clinton’s 2008 closing Iowa argument as much as his own, adopting her contention that inspiration without experience won’t cut it. He repeatedly praised Clinton without reservation while offering more tempered praise to the surging Sanders, whom he sees as a principled outsider seeking to change “terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago.”
To some extent, he’s returning Clinton’s favor: The former secretary of state has lavished praise on Obama on the debate stage and in appearances throughout Iowa, where he remains immensely popular among the hardcore progressives who turn out for the labor-intensive caucuses. Her refrain on the trail these days in Waterloo, Ames, Davenport: “I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves.”
Obama didn’t utter an unkind word about Sanders, who has been respectfully critical of his administration’s reluctance to prosecute Wall Street executives and his decision to abandon a single-payer health care system as politically impractical. But he was kinder to Clinton. When I asked Obama whether he thought Sanders needed to expand his horizons, if the Vermont senator was too much a one-issue candidate too narrowly focused on income inequality, the president didn’t dispute the assertion.
Gesturing toward the Resolute Desk, with its spread-winged eagle seal, first brought into the Oval Office by John F. Kennedy, Obama said of Sanders: “Well, I don’t want to play political consultant, because obviously what he’s doing is working. I will say that the longer you go in the process, the more you’re going to have to pass a series of hurdles that the voters are going to put in front of you.”
Then he added: “As you’ll recall, I was sitting at my desk there just a little over a week ago … writing my State of the Union speech, and somebody walks in and says, ‘A couple of our sailors wandered into Iranian waters’” — and here he stopped to chuckle in disbelief — “that’s maybe a dramatic example, but not an unusual example of the job.”
And he gently suggested that his own ’08 message might be a pretty good mantle for his would-be successors to don. “My bet is that the candidate who can project hope still is the candidate who the American people, over the long term, will gravitate towards,” he said.
The past three weeks have been like a wicked ’08 flashback for a Clinton campaign that was intent on learning from its mistakes in Iowa. Sanders, preaching a simple message of fighting economic inequality and Wall Street, has been gaining steadily on Clinton — whose stump speech sounds like one of her husband’s more discursive and overstuffed State of the Union laundry lists. The high school and college kids are flocking to Sanders, while Clinton is counting — sound familiar? — on women over the age of 50 as the core of her caucus support. As Sanders gains on her, she’s gone negative, and the media has revived the familiar “Hillary attacks” theme, even if the Vermont senator is giving as good as he gets.
When I asked Obama if Clinton is facing “unfair scrutiny” this time around, his answer was a clipped “yes” — and he even admitted a tinge of regret that his own campaign had been so hard on her eight years ago.
But when I asked him if Sanders reminded him of himself in 2008, he quickly shot me down: “I don’t think that’s true.”
I spoke to a half-dozen current and former top Obama advisers in preparation for the podcast, and to a person, they described the boss as in a nostalgic, pensive frame of mind as he approaches his final year in office.
He still keeps in touch with many architects of the 2008 Iowa strategy — 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe oversaw a blockbuster state operation that doubled the typical number of caucus-goers from about 120,000 to an unheard-of 240,000. The bonds are deep — he reached out to some of the old crew last month to tell them he was thinking about them on the eighth anniversary of his historic victory — and he need only watch the daily briefing for another Iowa reminder: White House press secretary Josh Earnest played the same role, in Obama’s Des Moines headquarters, during the caucuses.
He was clearly thinking of sweet Iowa when addressing the sour faces in the well of the House for the last time during last month’s State of the Union address. “I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa. I’ve been there. I’ll be shaking hands afterwards if you want some tips,” he said to the collective 2016 field, flashing a toothy grin.
“He’s in a really good place,” said David Axelrod, his top message strategist in 2008 and 2012. “He is taking stock.”
For a president facing an ugly, asymmetrical world and not especially prone to sentimentality, Iowa has a field-of-dreams quality, a thought oasis he’s been visiting after seven-plus years of compromise and combat, especially as the caucuses approach.
“That [Iowa] spirit was true. And the fact that we were a part of that I continue to be really proud of,” he told me.
But he also saw it as a proving ground that prepped him for the national stage. During his first big rally in the state, in February 2007, he committed a truly awful gaffe, telling a crowd in Ames that “3,000 lives” of American service members had been “wasted” in Iraq.
“I wasn’t necessarily ready for Broadway,” he conceded. “[M]y answers were too long, I was too wonkish, wasn’t crisp in my presentation. And that was true for a while. … Everything in retrospect always looks great… [But] I remember [the] endless van rides through cornfields, hungry, tired, going to my sixth event, and making phone calls to either raise money or to talk to some caucus-goer who didn’t really want to talk to me but my team said I had to call.”
Like the high school girl who hung up on him after declaring, “I’m in a yearbook meeting,” he recalled.
But the Obama-Clinton race in Iowa wasn’t simply a matter of hard work and spreading his optimistic vision of the future; it was a bitter political fight. Obama hammered away at the notion that the New York senator was on the wrong side of generational change, and his team successfully convinced reporters that every Clinton campaign swipe was an underhanded personal attack — something he’s less than proud of in retrospect.
“The truth is, in 2007 and 2008, sometimes my supporters and my staff, I think, got too huffy about what were legitimate questions she was raising,” he admitted. “And there were times where I think the media probably was a little unfair to her and tilted a little my way in calling her out.”
In fact, he said, Clinton “had a tougher job throughout that primary than I did.”
“She had to do everything that I had to do, except, like Ginger Rogers, backwards in heels,” he said. “She had to wake up earlier than I did because she had to get her hair done. She had to, you know, handle all the expectations that were placed on her.”
“Had things gone a little bit different in some states or if the sequence of primaries and caucuses been a little different,” Obama added, “she could have easily won.”
But he also offered a surprisingly blunt assessment of Clinton’s weaknesses.
She is better in “small groups” than big ones, he remarked, and he agreed that her first campaign appearances showed her to be “rusty” — comparing them to his God-awful first debate of the 2012 campaign. “[S]he’s extraordinarily experienced — and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out — [and] sometimes [that] could make her more cautious, and her campaign more prose than poetry,” he told me.
This, from a president who has been governing in prose, especially during his second term. In fact, Obama’s experiences in office have brought him around to Clinton’s hardheaded view of the presidency, first forged during her eight years as first lady. “I think that what Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives,” he said, echoing the very critique Clinton makes of Sanders.
Obama gives less ground when it comes to his own performance as president — repeating the message, from last month’s State of the Union address, that he’s “very proud of what we’ve gotten done over these last seven years” and that his “singular regret … is the fact that our body politic has become more polarized,” a situation he attributes to the actions of others — hyperpartisanship on the GOP side, gerrymandering, the media, super PACs.
But he will admit to mistakes in projecting his own message — and neglecting many of the communications tools that served him so effectively during the 2008 campaign — particularly using stagecraft and adapting rapidly to changes in social media. “[Y]ou know what, some of the presidency is performance and I’ve been criticized — probably, in some cases, fairly — for not effectively promoting my ideas,” he said.
“I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the need to tailor a communications strategy to a new era in which people are not just watching three network news shows,” he added. “I wish that I had adapted the White House communications operations and my own ways of presenting things to reach more people more effectively, sooner.”
Obama is of two minds about 2016, people close to him say: He’s intensely interested in ensuring that a Democrat wins and is keeping close tabs on the race — to keep the barbarians from the gates. But like many liberals his age, he’s averting his eyes from a Donald Trump free-for-all he finds depressing and distracting.
“You think about it: When I ran against John McCain, John McCain and I had real differences, sharp differences, but John McCain didn’t deny climate science,” he said. “John McCain didn’t call for banning Muslims from the United States. … [The] Republican vision has moved not just to the right, but has moved to a place that is unrecognizable.”
When I ask him if he’s been watching the Republican debates, must-see-TV for most politicians, he shakes his head and tugs restlessly on a cuffed shirtsleeve. “I don’t. But, look, I, as you know, didn’t like participating in many of these debates,” he says with a laugh. “And so if I didn’t enjoy watching my own, I certainly am not going to watch the Republican debates.”
It’s an open secret inside the White House that Obama was relieved to see Vice President Joe Biden pass on a 2016 presidential run— though he did nothing to prod his friend in either direction. Obama has remained above the fray in the Clinton-Sanders duel, but people close to him say he believes his onetime opponent is better equipped to defeat the Republicans.
“He’s not panicked by Sanders,” said one former top aide, “but he’s clearly thumbing the scale for Hillary.”
Many of Clinton’s senior staff are Obama White House alums — and some of her top campaign brass, including Obama’s former communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, and ex-counselor John Podesta, have met with the president in recent months; Obama’s longtime pollster, Joel Benenson, is Clinton’s top political strategist, and the campaign’s policy director Jake Sullivan, another administration veteran, remains close to his counterparts in the West Wing, according to multiple sources in both camps.
Obama told me he has spoken to both Clinton and Sanders about 2016, albeit in general terms. “We’ve had a conversation broadly about the importance of a Democrat winning [with Clinton], and I’ve had conversation with Bernie, about issues that he’s interested in or concerned about,” he said. “I have not been trying to kibitz and stick my nose into every aspect of their strategy.”
And while he’s not exactly waiting for the phone to ring, he said he’s not too busy to offer pro tips on a topic he knows better than just about anybody — Iowa.
“Look, if anybody asks me for my opinion on something, I’m happy to offer it,” he said.