President Obama is officially neutral in the Democratic primary. But an interview with Politico, published on Monday, suggests the key word in that description is “officially.”
“Hillary is really idealistic and progressive,” he said, and it’s important not to “exaggerate those differences” on policy between Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
In 2008, Obama said, “she had to do everything that I had to do, except, like Ginger Rogers, backwards in heels. She had to wake up earlier than I did because she had to get her hair done. She had to, you know, handle all the expectations that were placed on her. …Had things gone a little bit different in some states or if the sequence of primaries and caucuses been a little different, she could have easily won.”
“Her strengths, which are the fact that she’s extraordinarily experienced – and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out – sometimes could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry, but those are also her strengths,” he added. “It means that she can govern and she can start here, [on] day one, more experienced than any non-vice president has ever been who aspires to this office.”
Particularly in small groups, Obama said, Clinton excels as “folks realize she’s really warm and funny and engaging.”
“She has been in the public eye for a long time and in a culture in which new is always better,” Obama argued. “And, you know, you're always looking at the bright, shiny object that people don't, haven't seen before. That's a disadvantage to her.”
“The truth is in 2007 and 2008, sometimes my supporters and my staff, I think, got too huffy about what were legitimate questions she was raising,” he added.“And, you know, there were times where I think the media probably was a little unfair to her and tilted a little my way.”
“If Bernie won Iowa or won New Hampshire,” the president said, “then you guys are going to do your jobs and, you know, you're going to dig into his proposals and how much they cost and what does it mean, and, you know, how does his tax policy work and he's subjected, then, to a rigor that hasn't happened yet, but that Hillary is very well familiar with.”
He added, “I think they're both passionate about giving everybody a shot. I think they're both passionate about kids having a great education. I think they want to make sure everybody has health care. I think that they both believe in a tax system that is fair and not tilted towards, you know, the folks at the very top. But, you know, they — I think Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete longshot and just letting loose.”
In short, according to Obama, Sanders is idealistic, progressive and has not faced much media scrutiny, particularly on his policy ideas. Clinton, according to Obama, could have won in 2008, is better-prepared to sit in the Oval Office than almost any other candidate in history, knows the details of every public policy issue, is just as progressive as Sanders and is warm, funny and engaging, despite her reputation as a wooden campaigner.
The media is hard on Clinton, and in 2008, Obama’s own supporters were too critical of her. And Americans often love a fresh face, so that disadvantages Clinton, he says.
Many of these points are often articulated by Clinton’s backers and occasionally by the candidate herself. But Obama’s interview, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, is the latest illustration of what has been obvious for years: the president is enthusiastic about the idea of Clinton as his successor. He has opted against formally endorsing Clinton, but his effusive praise of Clinton for the last several years, his decision not to push Joe Biden to run and the endorsements of Clinton from close Obama allies, from former top White House adviser David Plouffe to former Attorney General Eric Holder, leave little doubt that Clinton is the Obama-approved candidate.
The big question is, as the primaries start, does the unofficial backing of the president matter to voters? Clinton has already accrued many of the benefits of being the candidate of the Democratic establishment, from endorsements to fundraising to Biden opting against running. That Obama likely prefers Clinton to Sanders is not surprising (the president is part of the establishment) and won’t become a huge news story that changes the coverage of the primary, since the president is not endorsing Clinton or campaigning in Iowa and other states for her.
And many voters may have already decided who they support, regardless of Obama’s words. In 2008, the Democratic electorate split into two blocs. Democrats under age 45, self-identified independents and those who described themselves as liberals backed Obama, while Latinos, older Democrats and those who described themselves as moderates generally favored Clinton. Those patterns persisted in state-after-state, making it very easy to predict which candidate would win primaries as the race stretched on.
So far, Clinton has a similar coalition to hers in 2008, while Sanders is winning the groups that once favored Obama.
But there are two ways the president’s views could affect the primary. The first is that Obama, in an interview in which he was directly asked about the similarities between his 2008 campaign and Sanders' 2016 operation, publicly rejected the analogy. For liberals on the fence between the two candidates, Obama positioned Clinton as just as logical a successor to him as Sanders.
Obama even hinted, without outright saying so, that Clinton was right about some things in 2008 that he and Clinton disagreed about back then.
Over the last few weeks, Clinton has suggested Sanders was naive in suggesting that the U.S could normalize relations with Iran in a recent debate and overly optimistic about his ability to change how American politics works through a political revolution. These criticisms were very similar to Clinton mocking Obama in 2008 for being overly idealistic and blasting him for suggesting that the U.S. negotiate directly with the leaders of rogue nations like Iran.
History has borne out the strength of Clinton’s ideas in 2008. The course to the nuclear agreement with Iran that the U.S. reached last year was a long, complicated negotiation that included little direct contact between Iranian leaders and the American president, as Clinton suggested during the 2008 campaign. She was right that Obama could not bring the two parties together, as the president acknowledged during his final State of the Union address earlier this month.
Secondly, Obama’s words could also be relevant to African-American voters, the one part of Obama’s 2008 coalition that Sanders has struggled to reassemble. Black voters in South Carolina are unlikely to be reading Politico. And with neither the president nor Michelle Obama campaigning alongside Clinton, the first couple’s unofficial backing won’t have any obvious benefit.
That said, Sanders is struggling to break through with blacks at both the elite level and with rank and file voters. A high-profile African-American backing him could help. Instead, over the last two weeks, Holder has formally endorsed Clinton, while Ta-Nehisi Coates, the award-winning writer for the Atlantic, has sharply criticized Sanders in his columns. Sanders, Coates argues, is wrong to suggest reparations for blacks are unrealistic while the candidate proposes ideas like a government-run health care system that are also very unlikely to happen.
The president has praised Sanders too. But Sanders is arguing his model of politics would unique benefit African-Americans. Obama, the most influential black person in the country, is saying that Clinton’s politics are just fine for him.