RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And while potential Republican presidential candidates showed off in Iowa, Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic Party candidate, dealt with a bubbling controversy over her private email account. So is this just a bump in the road for Clinton or another reminder -as political pundits would have it - that the name Clinton goes hand in hand with scandal? We're joined now by NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Is this how the early 2016 campaign will go - a field of Republicans fighting for attention while one Hillary issue steals all of that attention?
LIASSON: Well, it's certainly how it's starting out. You've got this huge field of Republicans on one side fighting each other and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. You've got one candidate, and she's creating all her own problems. This could have been a period for Hillary Clinton to lay low, staff up, set her policy agenda, get her speech polished. But instead, we do seem to have gotten back into the way-back machine and re-visited the Clinton's penchant for scandals and controversy - this one over private emails that weren't archived at the State Department as they were supposed to be. And one of the biggest questions about a Clinton run is what lessons has she learned from the past? Would this campaign be different from the last one? And this controversy has revived all the old tropes about the Clintons: they're blind to appearances of impropriety, the rules don't apply to them and they have a penchant for secrecy and lack of transparency.
MONTAGNE: Well, definitely these were more secret than they might have been if they'd come from the State, but President Obama told CBS News that he learned of the private email accounts from news reports.
LIASSON: That's right. The White House has been answering questions about this all week. But this weekend the president was asked about it by Bill Plante of CBS, and he said he learned about this the way that everybody else did - from the media. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF CBS INTERVIEW)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The policy of my administration is to encourage transparency. And that's why my emails, the blackberry that I carry around, all those records are available and archived. And I'm glad that Hillary has instructed that those emails that had to do with official business need to be disclosed.
LIASSON: So you can hear him distancing himself from Mrs. Clinton on this. But despite any tensions between the Obama and Clinton camps, certainly President Obama wants to cement his legacy by helping to elect a Democratic successor. And this at the very least is a bump in the road for that project.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's get back to that possible bump in the road at the least, but does it really spell big trouble for the Democrats? And if so, what does it say about the state of Democratic leadership?
LIASSON: Well, we don't know yet. The State Department could take months going through the 55,000 pages of emails they got from Hillary Clinton. We don't know what else is in the emails because they were stored on a private server link to her home, and she got to decide what to turn over to the State Department. Even Democratic allies are nervous about this. This weekend California Senator Dianne Feinstein said Clinton should, quote, "step up now to cut off this scandal" and that "any further silence on the issue would hurt Clinton." So far, Hillary Clinton hasn't said anything with the exception of one tweet saying, quote, "I want the public to see my email," but we know Republican candidates won't leave this alone. There might be congressional hearings. And House Republican Trey Gowdy, who is the chair of the Benghazi Committee, says he plans to call Hillary Clinton as a witness and that there are big gaps in the emails he has been given so far, gaps of, quote, "months and months."
MONTAGNE: Could this actually be something that derails her expected bid for the presidency?
LIASSON: Well, nobody is suggesting that, but this is the great irony because historically it's very hard to succeed a two- term president of your own party. But Democrats were looking at what could be a pretty favorable presidential electoral landscape for them. President Obama's approval rating is up. The economy is improving. And the party has an advantage of some favorable electoral college framework. But that being said, there is only one Democratic candidate. This is unprecedented. As you heard, maybe Jim Webb, Martin O'Malley, Bernie Sanders might run, but they don't amount to much of a challenge for Clinton. If she doesn't run, there really is no one else who Democrats think could beat the Republicans. So for all the advantages the Democrats have, they have a surprisingly thin bench of presidential hopefuls.
MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much.
LIASSON: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.