Obama, Clinton tensions build over email lists ahead of 2016

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New tensions are emerging in the relationship between allies of President Obama and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAsian, Pacific Islander lawmakers to endorse Clinton Feds fight to prevent Clinton deposition in email case Trump decides he won't debate Bernie Sanders MORE

At issue is the fate of the political equivalent of gold dust — the enormous email list, comprised of many millions of supporters and donors, that the Obama team has compiled over the course of his two presidential campaigns.

The Clinton camp would dearly love to get its hands on the list, but there is no promise as yet that the president’s aides will comply.

There are “large concerns” about the lists among Clinton supporters, one Hillary ally told The Hill.

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To the Clintons and their friends, it’s near unthinkable that a Democratic president — who has plenty of reasons to want a member of his party to succeed him — would withhold such a valuable commodity. 

But Team Obama has long believed that the president’s support is built upon the bedrock of his personal qualities rather than mere party identification. His people are loath to be seen as treating the passion of his supporters in a cavalier fashion.

“There’s a lot of data — voter data, massive email lists — that Obama built and there are a lot of people who want to make sure that he spreads that wealth,” the Clinton ally said. “They want to make sure he doesn’t take it in a suitcase back to Chicago and move on. No one wants to see it disappear or have it used just to build a library.”

But a senior Democratic strategist familiar with the Obama operation noted that, among the millions of names and emails on the famous lists, there were many people whose primary loyalty was to Barack Obama rather than to the Democratic Party.

Asked about the likely fate of the data, the strategist expressed uncertainty as to how the internal discussions would shake out. The person floated the idea of a compromise under which Obama could send out emails to his own list, but then include a link to a Hillary-specific site to which his supporters could donate.

The gathering storm over the email lists is just the latest example of the complicated dynamics that underpin the Obama-Clinton relationship. It is revealing that the tensions have flared before the former first lady has even officially launched her 2016 campaign.

Obama himself might have made the first big speech of the 2016 election last week, with his State of the Union address. The president asserted that he had been vindicated by events in the face of Republican opposition, tweaked the GOP a number of times, and made appeals to key demographic groups, including women and Latinos.

Obama might not be on the ballot in November 2016, but the election will mean a great deal for his legacy. 

For any president, even an outgoing one, such an election is inevitably seen as a referendum on their tenure. For Obama specifically, a Democratic successor would solidify his biggest achievements — notably healthcare reform — whereas a Republican in the Oval Office would seek to dislodge them.

“One of the most important things for his legacy is to make sure there’s a Democratic president to prevent a lot of the work from getting rolled back,” said Tommy Vietor, a former longtime Obama aide who worked briefly for Clinton during her book rollout last year.

One question is what Obama can do to help Clinton — or whoever turns out to be the Democratic nominee — to win. 

During last year’s midterms, Senate Democrats all but begged him to stay off the campaign trail and the airwaves. But now, with the economy accelerating, gas prices falling and Obama’s approval rating once again reaching 50 percent in some polls, 2016 could be a very different story.

The nature of Obama’s involvement is “really going to depend upon where his approval ratings are,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “If it’s a wash, I think he will trot out a little, where he is beloved.” 

But, Berkovitz added, “if the economy is considered close to booming, Obama will absolutely take full credit for that and the Republicans will be screwed.”

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane asserted that “the economic wind is at the president’s back for the first time in a meaningful way” and that, when the 2016 campaign rolls around, Obama could “goose that feeling up a bit.”

Potential Democratic nominees, including Clinton, are sure to capitalize on the nation’s brightening economic mood.

“The economy is rocking,” a second Clinton ally said. “Why wouldn’t she piggyback off that to an extent?”

But Lehane and others noted that, whoever turned out to be the Democratic nominee, she or he needed to find a way to emphasize that they were distinct from Obama, without being seen as overtly critical of him.

“If it is Hillary, there are places where making the election a referendum on President Obama could be a positive thing — like his support for increasing the minimum wage,” said Democratic strategist Karen Finney. “But there are areas, specifically in foreign policy, where we know they disagree.”

But, Finney added, “in the general election, regardless of who it is, the main point of contrast will be between the Democratic nominee and the Republican nominee.”

There is awareness in the Obama and Clinton camps, and across the broader Democratic Party, that it would be inappropriate for the president to get directly involved in the primary process.

But once a nominee is decided, Clinton allies say, a show of unambiguous enthusiasm will be expected.

“She wants his support, she wants his donors and she wants his validation of her policies,” another Clinton backer said. “She’s proven that she’s been a serious supporter of his. And she would ask the same for him.”
 
The famous email list could provide the first key example of whether that unreserved endorsement will be forthcoming.