Can Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Save the Establishment?

By Bill Scher
June 08, 2016

Hillary Clinton stepped into the 2016 presidential race hoping voters would effortlessly pass the torch from President Barack Obama to her, yet found herself surrounded by a raging anti-establishment inferno. “Burn it down” was the unofficial slogan of the Republican primary. And Bernie Sanders gave her a run for her money by metaphorically lighting all her Wall Street speaking fee money on fire.

Today, as she is unofficially crowned the “presumptive nominee,” Clinton has officially done what Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham could not: survive the populist wave while being perceived as an insider. Now, as Donald Trump tries to assemble a potent pitchfork brigade to seize Washington, the establishment’s lonely eyes are turning to Hillary Clinton.

As Clinton shifts her focus to the general election, last week’s one-two teleprompter punch from Clinton and Obama suggests a fall strategy that runs somewhat counter to the populist tenor of the primaries. It looks like we’re going to see a superstar tag team duo aiming to consolidate all of strains of the unsettled establishment—and the disaffected Republicans and moderate swing voters who identify with their views—without alienating the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren populist wing of the Democratic Party.

While Clinton still has work to do to woo Bernie voters, she has a huge opportunity created by the disruptive Trump, who has left many national security hawks, free marketers and pro-immigrant, pro-diversity conservatives feeling politically homeless. In turn, she and Obama have begun crafting arguments more associated with establishment politics than populism.

Make no mistake: this is nothing less than a political high-wire act being attempted by a meticulous but not always agile candidate. Many Sanders voters say they don’t trust her when she claims to be a “progressive,” and any new rightward lean will only confirm their suspicions. But she'll have one heck of a wingman to carry the establishment banner through the populist headwinds: President Barack Obama, who, according to Gallup, boasts a near unanimous 84 percent job approval rating among liberals and a healthy 56 percent with moderates. He’s now testing the boundaries of those numbers, trying to leverage his reservoir of goodwill on the left to deliver a sharp rebuttal to Trump’s broadsides against his trade policies. Clearly, he is seeking to expand the political playing field, give Clinton more ideological room to maneuver and give the “Establishment” a good name.

It's early yet, but if Clinton successfully walks the tightrope we could experience a dramatic ideological reorganization. A Clinton coalition that mixes populist with establishmentarian, capturing both disgusted center-right Republicans and wary independent Sandernistas, could be the biggest tent American politics has seen since Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency while he was bombing Cambodia.


Clinton recognizes that the pillars of the American political establishment—the think tank experts, political operatives, opinionated scribblers and fat cat donors on both left and right who shape much of the daily Washington conversation—have found themselves disoriented by the primary season. Some, like the New York Times’ David Brooks, used the moment to shame their insider brethren for failing to spot the grassroots tumult. But listen closely and you can hear their plaintive cries for a leader who can quell the demands for crude, one-note policy solutions.

You can hear the establishment voices on the right, like conservative foreign policy leader Max Boot, who wrote last month of his inclination to break with his party: “Hillary Clinton is a centrist Democrat who is more hawkish than President Obama and far more principled and knowledgeable about foreign affairs than Trump. … But I am not prepared to join the party that she leads, because so much of it appears to be well to her left.”

You can hear the frustration among Democratic elites, who are tired of being tarred as corporate shills by Bernie Sanders and his supporters.

Former congressman and Wall Street reform namesake Barney Frank vented to the Washington Post in April, “He has now become critical of those who compromise, he's critical of the pragmatic approach to getting things done and even suggests … that we do it for base motives.”

You can even hear the subtle pleas from centrist billionaires, as when Warren Buffett knocked Sanders for “a tendency to demonize institutions” and offer simplistic solutions. Or when Michael Bloomberg announced he wouldn’t run for president because he might tip the election to Trump, while observing with dismay how the “leading Democratic candidates have attacked policies that spurred growth and opportunity under President Bill Clinton—support for trade, charter schools, deficit reduction and the financial sector.” Translation: Clinton, don’t let Sanders’ platform run the party.

Clinton rightly sees a big opportunity here not only to win the favor of those insiders with robust media access, but to impress moderate voters who carry a similar skepticism of pat answers to tough problems. Of course, she is all too aware that she can’t take the votes from Sanders supporters for granted, as their reluctance is already weighing down her poll numbers. She has already leaned farther left than she probably planned to do, in order to deprive Sanders of easy targets on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Keystone pipeline and the minimum wage. But there were lines to her left she would not cross, be it for political expediency or on pragmatist policy grounds. She wouldn’t touch a “carbon tax,” she danced around Glass-Steagall repeal and she did not back away from her record of supporting military interventions during her time as secretary of state. She even defended Henry Kissinger, the embodiment of the foreign policy establishment, by schooling Sanders on the need to listen to expertise, whatever the source: “Yes, people we may disagree with on a number of things may have some insight, may have some relationships that are important for the president to understand in order to best protect the United States.”

She has made more direct appeals to establishment conservatives, too. Her foreign policy address last week grabbed headlines thanks to her withering put-downs of Trump. But overlooked was the encapsulation of her foreign policy philosophy, summoning a phrase near and dear to foreign policy conservatives: American exceptionalism. “I believe with all my heart that America is an exceptional country,” she said, “that we’re still, in Lincoln’s words, the last, best hope of earth. We are not a country that cowers behind walls. We lead with purpose, and we prevail. And if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum—and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void.”

Clinton didn’t stop there. Despite hints that Sanders wants to spark a convention debate over the Israel/Palestine conflict and include more platform language critical of Israel’s “occupation of Palestinian lands,” Clinton moved in the opposite direction and maligned Trump as “neutral on Israel’s security.” She sounded like a Cold War-era Republican when she attacked Trump on Russia: “If Donald gets his way, they’ll be celebrating in the Kremlin.”

Clinton even tiptoed rightward on trade—perhaps the most “establishment” issue of all, uniting technocratic Democrats, free-market Republicans, national security experts and corporate CEOs. While she has not backed away from her assurances to the left that she would oppose a congressional vote on TPP now or after the election, she did slam Trump for threatening high retaliatory tariffs on Chinese goods: “He wants to start a trade war with China. And I understand a lot of Americans have concerns about our trade agreements—I do too. But a trade war is something very different. We went down that road in the 1930s. It made the Great Depression longer and more painful.” Her rejection of crude protectionism is a clear signal to free traders that she doesn’t want to be lumped in with the most vociferous critics of the current global trade regime, giving the establishment hope she will remain open to future deals.

And this is where Obama might be most helpful. The main headline generated by the president’s first campaign speech of the 2016 season, delivered last Wednesday in Elkhart, Indiana, was that he embraced a core demand of the populist left: an expansion of Social Security benefits. But the speech was more comprehensive and ideologically nuanced than that, and included a defense of reduced trade barriers—which he has worked hard to ensure is one of his legacies despite the massive pushback on the left and right. Obama set the stage with a case for his own economic record and against overheated attacks from the Republicans. “Their basic message is anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-trade, and, let’s face it, it’s anti-change.” He harkened back to his early rhetoric about the need to “make government cool again,” and defended his record on Obamacare, food stamps and environmental regulation.

In casually linking “anti-trade” to the more common “anti-government” and “anti-immigrant” swipes at the GOP, Obama frontally challenged Trump’s version of the anti-TPP argument. It was a complicated case to make. Obama was compelled to acknowledge, “a lot of supporters of trade deals in the past sometimes oversold all the good that it was going to do for the economy.” But he took the time, calling it a “myth” that “other countries are killing us on trade,” instead contending that “exports helped lead us out of the recession” and that he won several cases adjudicated under global trade rules to crack down on “other countries for cheating.” His conclusion echoed Clinton’s worries of a “trade war”: “when you hear somebody threatening to cut off trade and saying that that’s standing up for American workers, that’s just not true.”

Not too long ago, Obama’s trade critics on the left would complain that characterizing opponents as wanting to “cut off trade” was creating a straw man. But with Trump blurting out, “Who the hell cares if there's a trade war?” both Obama and Clinton have a straw man gift-wrapped in the perfect foil.


That the two are teaming up to douse Trump’s populist embers, and consolidate the establishment behind the Democratic Party, is an ironic chapter in their nine-year story. In the beginning, Obama was the focus of Clinton’s pragmatist ire. She flailed in 2007 and 2008 trying to puncture Obama’s idealistic “Change We Can Believe In” message with a cold blast of reality. “You [don’t] promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are” she lectured him from the establishment playbook, when he brazenly pledged to meet with Iranian and Cuban heads of state in his first year. She diminished his early opposition to the Iraq invasion as mere speechifying: “His entire campaign is based on one speech. … We have one speech in 2002 versus a record of accomplishment and a record of action."

Today, they both have records of accomplishment from the same administration. An attack on the establishment and the status quo is, at least in part, an attack on them. But Clinton has taken far more blows from Sanders and his supporters for her establishment ties than has the president of the United States. Obama’s job approval in the Gallup tracking poll has been at 50 percent or above for most of the last three months—nearly double the number of voters who say America is on the “right track.” Clinton can have no better surrogate to help her defuse the charge that she represents a stagnant status quo than the person still viewed by many Americans as a change agent.

Yes, there is still great risk for Clinton in trying to defend establishment principles while populist sentiment continues to percolate. Obama may be more popular among Democrats than she is, but 30 percent of Democratic primary voters want the next president to be “more liberal” than Obama, a constituency that voted for Sanders by a 2-to-1 margin. You can be sure this group is the hotbed of “Bernie or Bust” sentiment. Rhetoric designed to entice centrist and right-leaning establishment figures, even with political cover from Obama, won’t impress that faction.

And then there’s the fact that even many in the #NeverTrump pool still say they are also #NeverHillary, so ingrained is anti-Clinton sentiment on the right. Clinton may be falling into the trap that many Sanders supporters claim Obama fell into, wasting time waving olive branches to unpersuadable Republicans.

But while polls indicate that Trump has made strides in consolidating Republican base voters, most polls still peg him in the low 40s, suggesting he hasn’t gotten very far with swing voters. And every day, Trump’s word bombs force Republican leaders to dodge the shrapnel, keeping the party itself constantly on the back foot. So long as Clinton can navigate the convention, strike a deal on the platform and ease Sanders into a surrogate role, she may conclude that this political time is different.

And, if she pulls it off, with Obama’s help, we may just get the FDR-style partisan realignment many in the Democratic hoped an Obama presidency would augur.

Then, we’ll see the next battle immediately ensue, as the newly united populist left and the establishment—both left and right—fight over who gets the credit.