What Did Obama Say in His Big Politico Interview?

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Barack Obama has been cagey about which of the Democratic candidates he would like to succeed him in 2016. But his aides, speaking with Politico, have not been so taciturn. Jason Reed/Reuters

The president receives thousands of interview requests from outlets all over the globe, so when he picks a reporter for a half-hour session, there's usually a reason. Ever since Politico released its interview with the president Monday morning, Washington is trying to figure out what that reason is.

As Hillary Clinton portrays herself as the carrier of Obama's legacy, and as Bernie Sanders paints himself a bold break from the past, the president gave an interesting look at his own thinking about where his party is going.

While the president had kind words for both candidates, and kept his vow to stay neutral in the race, his unalloyed praise for Clinton and pointed denial of any comparisons between Sanders's 2016 crowds and his own insurgency in 2008 has led many to see the interview as a clear attempt to boost the secretary of state. If it is a subtle nod, it comes at a good time for Clinton who is facing difficult contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the sites of the first balloting of the presidential race.

Though Obama may refrain from overtly favoring one candidate over another, close aides told Thrush he would prefer Clinton as his successor. "He's not panicked by Sanders," one 'former top aide' told Thrush, "but he's clearly thumbing the scale for Hillary."

Most eye-catching in the interview with was Obama's rejection of the notion that Sanders is to Clinton in 2016 as Obama himself was to Clinton in 2008. "I don't think that's true," he said. "I think they're both passionate about giving everybody a shot...But...I think Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete longshot and just letting loose."

Clinton, he said, has had the privilege and burden of being perceived as the front-runner, as she was in 2008. That changed after Obama's momentous victory in Iowa that year. In fact, Obama said, part of why he lost New Hampshire was that voters saw him as "kind of cocky" coming off his big win in Iowa. Still, it was all for the best, Obama told Thrush. "This is probably a good thing," he recalled saying at the time. "This is how our democracy should work, because some untested kid should not be able to just win one caucus and suddenly he's the nominee."

And he thinks the way the media has treated Clinton has been a bit unfair. "If you are a front-runner, then you are under more scrutiny and everybody is going to pick you apart," he said. That "everybody" includes him. Obama told Thrush he thought his campaign and supporters in 2008 were "too huffy" in response to some of Clinton's criticisms of Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary.

On the one hand, "Bernie has tapped into a running thread in Democratic politics that says: Why are we still constrained by the terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago? You know, why is it that we should be scared to challenge conventional wisdom and talk bluntly about inequality and, you know, be full-throated in our progressivism?" Obama asked. In a world where "new is always better," Obama called Sanders "the bright, shiny object that people...haven't seen before." On the other, "Hillary presents...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."

"I don't want to exaggerate those differences, though, because Hillary is really idealistic and progressive. You'd have to be to be in, you know, the position she's in now, having fought all the battles she's fought and, you know, taken so many, you know, slings and arrows from the other side," he added.