Hillary's tightrope walk with Wall St. and the people

Hillary Clinton stopped at a coffee house in Mount Vernon, Iowa, April 14, 2015.
Melina Mara | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Hillary Clinton took a couple of major steps this week to inoculate herself from attacks by the left wing of her party that she is too close to Wall Street and out of touch with average Americans who have seen incomes stagnate over the last decade.

So far, the moves have been smart and well-executed. But they could bring trouble down the road.

First, Clinton went to Iowa for a "listening tour" with voters and got in a few barbs directed at CEO pay and hedge fund manager tax rates. In a fundraising email, Clinton wrote: "Families have fought their way back from tough economic times. But it's not enough—not when the average CEO makes 300 times what the average worker makes." And in Iowa she said "there's something wrong when hedge fund managers pay less in taxes than nurses or the truckers I saw on I-80."

The comments drew mostly grudging praise from liberal activists who want to see Clinton follow up with significant, progressive policy proposals. The Clinton campaign likely does not want much more effusive testimonials from the left. They don't need the Elizabeth Warren wing to love the former secretary of state. They just need progressives not to hate her enough to drive a serious movement toward an alternative candidate (Martin O'Malley or someone else) that could suck up media oxygen and complicate Clinton's glide path to the Democratic nomination.

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Nothing short of a full blown scandal or other crisis could deny Clinton a spot at the top of the 2016 ticket at this point. But a powerful challenge from the left highlighting all of Clinton's ties to Wall Street and ripping her as hypocritical on economic issues—something Republicans are doing nonstop already—could inflict serious early damage heading into the general election.

Clinton needs to replicate President Barack Obama's progressive turn-out machine, and she won't be able to do that if low-propensity voters think she is some kind of Wall Street plutocrat.

Clinton's remarks were also not harsh enough to alienate her many deep-pocketed backers in the finance industry. Multiple Wall Street executives and hedge fund managers this week all told me they understood that Clinton had to take some shots to reflect the populist moment and shore up her left flank. Several, including Morgan Stanley's Tom Nides, also noted that Clinton has always opposed the carried interest loophole that lets private equity and some hedge fund managers pay the lower capital gains rate on the bulk of their income.

Sure, some of Clinton's Wall Street supporters bristle a little bit at any perceived attacks on their industry. But mostly they get it. And fundraising is never, ever going to be a problem for Clinton. She could start her own Occupy Wall Street protest and still back up the Brink's truck and fill it with banker cash.

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The most interesting move for the Clinton campaign came with news that it would hire former CFTC chair and Goldman Sachs executive Gary Gensler as chief financial officer.

Gensler has a long history with the Clintons having served in the Bill Clinton White House. He is one of the few figures who retains credibility with both the Bob Rubin, pro-Wall Street wing of the party and the restive progressive faction.

Gensler's sharp elbows while fighting for tough implementation of Dodd-Frank rules on derivatives endeared him to reformers. And while it angered many bankers, he is still a highly respected figure on Wall Street.

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The trouble for the Clinton campaign will come if they fail to give Gensler a significant voice in the campaign. If they try to marginalize him, he's likely to let people know about it in ways that the high command will not like. One assumes Gensler got assurances of a real seat at the table. But previous Hillary Clinton campaigns have devolved into turf battles and assessments of blame. So there is no guarantee of success for efforts to balance a pro-growth, business-friendly message with policies that financial reformers and others on the left will embrace.

Clinton is navigating a very tricky path right now to convince Democrats that she understands the problems and pain associated with the current economy while not seeming totally hypocritical or lurching so far left that leaves the center open to the eventual GOP nominee. So far, the early moves to accomplish this look pretty strong. But there is a long road ahead.

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—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.