Bernie and Barack’s Awkward White House Visit

Molly O’Toole

This story has been updated with Sanders’s comments.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders met Wednesday with President Barack Obama, who days ago gave a major boost to his rival, Hillary Clinton — just days before the upcoming Iowa caucus.


In a brief stakeout after the White House meeting, Sanders said he and the president had a “productive and constructive” conversation on issues foreign and domestic, including the Islamic State, Syria, Iran, and “occasionally a little bit of politics.”

The senator said the Iowa caucus will be decided by one word: turnout. “We’re feeling really good about where we are … If there is a large turnout, I think we win; if not, I think we’re going to be struggling,” he said, according to a pool report. Of Obama, Sanders added, “I think he and the vice president have tried to be fair and even-handed in the process and I expect they will continue to be that way.”

Sanders said he did not ask Obama for his endorsement.

Obama has thus far declined to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, though he hasn’t ruled out doing so. But in an interview last week, he tacitly endorsed his former secretary of state.

“Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose,” Obama said told Politico. “I think Hillary came in with the both privilege — and burden — of being perceived as the front-runner. …You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before.”

He quickly dismissed comparisons between Sanders’ surging campaign and his own in 2008 against Clinton: “I don’t think that’s true.”

In 2008, Obama scored a massive upset in the Iowa caucus, injecting his underdog campaign with enough Big Mo to ultimately carry him to the nomination. It was a morale blow that still haunts Clinton as she trades the lead with Sanders in polls days before the Iowa vote on Feb. 1.

Both candidates have been welcomed to the White House over the years, with Clinton coming as recently as last month. But visitor logs show that in Sanders’ some 40 visits during Obama’s tenure, he’s only once met privately with the president, a year ago, according to the Washington Post.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday’s meeting has been planned for weeks and doesn’t have a “formal agenda.” But administration officials well know it will be seen as a pat on the back to Sanders after Obama put a finger on Clinton’s side of the scale.

Obama’s comments last week were particularly acute in the context of Clinton’s last-minute strategy shift to frame her as the rightful heir of the president’s legacy, particularly on foreign policy, and defending his record against all comers — including Sanders. The curmudgeonly Vermonter has bristled at the suggestion he’s betrayed the president.

“Set the record right,” Sanders said to Clinton in the last Democratic debate. “In 2006 when I ran for the Senate, Sen. Barack Obama was kind enough to campaign for me, 2008, I did my best to see that he was elected and in 2012, I worked as hard as I could to see that he was reelected. He and I are friends.”

Friends, it seems, without the benefits of an endorsement.

Photo credit: Alex Wong / Getty