The key omission was particularly noticeable Wednesday as Obama and Sanders met for their first one-on-one since Sanders jolted the Democratic campaign and locked Hillary Clinton in an unexpectedly tight race.
The long-discussed meeting between Obama and his sometime critic was a moment for the president to display his public neutrality in the heated primary race to replace him—rebutting suggestions that he’s in the tank for Clinton. For Sanders, it was a chance to show he’s got some sway with a president who’s still popular among Democrats.
“By and large, over the last seven years on major issue after major issue, I have stood by his side where he has taken on unprecedented Republican obstructionism and has tried to do the right thing for the American people,” Sanders said after the meeting.
But neither the White House nor Sanders is suggesting the men are kindred spirits, or even close political allies. White House officials say the men lack much of a personal relationship and have markedly different approaches to politics. The president this week declared bluntly he doesn’t see Sanders’ upstart campaign as a reboot of his own battle against Clinton in 2008. Obama allies bristle at comparisons between Sanders and the president.
It’s a reminder that even as Obama watches the nomination battle from a distance, he is personally tied to the outcome. He remains focused on ensuring a Democrat wins the White House and on protecting his legacy. Increasingly, it appears, he sees Clinton as his best hope.
Sanders emerged from the 45-minute meeting with gracious things to say about his host.
He said he believes Obama has been “even handed” in his dealing with the candidates. The president has campaigned for him in the past, Sanders noted, harking back a decade to an appearance then-Sen. Obama made in Vermont. And he has campaigned for Obama, he said, delivering a pointed rebuke to Clinton, who has suggested Sanders has been disloyal to the president.
The White House had kind words for Sanders’ contribution to Democrats enthusiasm, although not his leadership.
“That ability to engage Democrats and excite them and inspire them will be critical to the success of Democrats up and down the ballot,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “Whether Senator Sanders is the nominee or not.”
The caveat was a marked contrast to remarks Obama recently made about Clinton. In an interview with Politico, the president described his former secretary of state as “more experienced than any non-vice president has ever been who aspires to this office.” Sanders has “great authenticity, great passion and is fearless,” Obama said, but he added the senator is untested.
White House officials say Obama interview was a reflection of his close, working relationship with Clinton and his focus on wanting Democrats to win, not his discomfort with Sanders.
Although Sanders and Obama overlapped in the Senate, they have few personal ties. Sanders, an independent who tends to vote with Democrats, is an unabashed liberal willing to hold the line. Obama has shown far more interest in pragmatism than ideological purity.
The president respects the role Sanders has played in the Senate, a White House official said. Indeed, a younger Obama once cheered that effort.
“It seems like power is always trumping principle,” Obama said as he campaigned for Sanders in 2006. “Things can change, that we can overcome that cynicism.”
But as president, Obama has not relied on Sanders for advice or legislative heft. The senator hasn’t been a regular at the White House. He last met privately with Obama in December 2014 to alert the president of his plans to run for his job, Earnest said.
Obama allies have dismissed suggestions that Sanders’ campaign is following a path Obama charted eight years ago. Despite both men attracting youthful crowds, promising change and running against Clinton, the comparison is thin, they say.
Sanders rails against the gap between the nation’s wealthy and poor, which has grown during Obama’s presidency, and slams the role of Wall Street and big corporations in the economy.
He also blasts the proliferation of big money in politics. In 2012, Obama blessed the creation of a Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA Action, to support his re-election bid.
Like Clinton, Sanders opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a key part of Obama’s trade agenda. He also opposes the president in advocating transforming Obama’s health care law into what he describes as a universal “Medicare for all” system.
These issues weren’t the focus of the meeting, Sanders said, downplaying the differences as he stood in the driveway of the White House to talk to reporters. Photographers were not allowed to shoot the president and Sanders together in the Oval Office.