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Opinion Make no mistake: Obama just tried to undercut Bernie Sanders

Sorry, Bernie, but you aren’t me. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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The Hillary Clinton campaign has been engaged in an aggressive effort to accomplish one crucial political goal: Knocking off Bernie Sanders’ halo. One common thread running through many Clinton attacks on Sanders — whether it’s questioning his record on guns or suggesting his single payer dream isn’t going to happen — has been to try to portray Sanders as a conventional politician (after all) who is not quite as pure as the scenes of his rapt, transported crowds suggest and is promising more than he can deliver.

As Hillary Clinton's lead in the polls continues to fall, her attacks on Bernie Sanders have stepped up. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Clinton may have just gotten an assist in this regard from none other than President Barack Obama.

In an interview with Politico’s Glenn Thrush, this exchange happened, after Thrush asked Obama whether Sanders was successfully duplicating the optimistic, transformation-promising message that helped him defeat Clinton in 2008:

THRUSH: I mean, when you watch this, what do you — do you see any elements of what you were able to accomplish in what Sanders is doing?
OBAMA: Well, there’s no doubt that Bernie has tapped into a running thread in Democratic politics that says: Why are we still constrained by the terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago? You know, why is it that we should be scared to challenge conventional wisdom and talk bluntly about inequality and, you know, be full-throated in our progressivism? And, you know, that has an appeal and I understand that.
I think that what Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives. I don’t want to exaggerate those differences, though, because Hillary is really idealistic and progressive. You’d have to be to be in, you know, the position she’s in now, having fought all the battles she’s fought and, you know, taken so many, you know, slings and arrows from the other side. And Bernie, you know, is somebody who was a senator and served on the Veterans’ Committee and got bills done. And so the—
THRUSH: But it sounds like you’re not buying the — you’re not buying the sort of, the easy popular dichotomy people are talking about, where he’s an analog for you and she is herself?
OBAMA: No. No.

Obama subsequently argued that Clinton’s “strengths can be her weaknesses,” acknowledging that her campaign is “more prose than poetry,” but that underlying this is an argument for Clinton, i.e., that her realism about what governing will require equips her to be president on “day one.”

The monumental fall of the Republican Party

What this really represents, I think, is Obama essentially taking sides in one of the fundamental underlying arguments of the 2016 Democratic primary: the battle between Clinton’s and Sanders’ theories of change. As I’ve argued, Sanders’ argument represents an intriguing mix of pessimism and optimism. His case is basically that America faces structural challenges so profound and immense (soaring inequality that has resulted in oligarchy paralyzing our government; climate change that threatens to undermine the future of human civilization) that only big, big solutions proportionate to the scale of these challenges will do. Sanders further argues that such ambitious solutions are possible despite the seeming GOP grip on at least one chamber of Congress, through mobilizing the masses, particularly young people, to force another transformational moment rivaling other moments of great change in American history.

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Clinton, by contrast, has suggested that the structural realities underlying our politics — the country’s deep ideological divisions; our political system’s built-in impediments to change; the forbidding math underlying GOP control of the House — mean that advances under the next Dem president would likely be ground out on the margins, perhaps in less-than-inspirational fashion.

Obama is basically trying to pour cold water on the loftiness of Sanders’ argument, by nodding to the “appeal” of promising another transformative moment, while suggesting that Clinton’s more constrained view of what can be “delivered” is more realistic, and that this is actually an attribute that recommends her for the presidency. (Note that Obama is also arguing that this doesn’t mean Clinton’s ideals aren’t lofty, an implicit effort to signal that she needs to learn a bit more from Sanders’s success.)  As Thrush puts it, Obama’s words signal that his “experiences in office have brought him around to Clinton’s hardheaded view of the presidency.”

Here an important distinction needs to be made. In one key respect, Sanders is not making Candidate Obama’s argument. Sanders is not arguing that the sheer force of persuasion can win over Republicans to compromise, a key element of Obama’s promise of transformation. Rather, he is explicitly arguing that Obama did not do enough to rally the electorate to force change from the outside. Sanders flatly claims that his “difference” with Obama is that the only way to realize change is to “organize…at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before,” which is to say, to a much greater degree than Obama did as president. We will debate whether President Obama did enough to organize pressure on Washington from the outside for many years to come. But it’s worth noting, as Jonathan Chait points out, that Obama as president did in fact try to keep alive a grassroots campaign that was arguably larger than the one Sanders has produced so far, and it’s unclear how much it accomplished.

And at any rate, one suspects that the Obama who is about to leave office would also dispute Sanders’ account of how much can be accomplished by outside pressure on our political system.


* TRUMP-MENTUM RAGES IN IOWA AND NEW HAMPSHIRE: New Fox News polls find Donald Trump leading in Iowa (he has 34 percent among GOP caucus-goers; Ted Cruz has 23 percent; and Marco Rubio has 12) and in New Hampshire (he has 31 percent; Cruz has 14; and Rubio has 13).

The polling averages now show Trump taking the lead in Iowa and leading by a large amount in New Hampshire. It is now plausible that Trump could win both early contests.

 * HILLARY, BERNIE SEE DIFFERENT ROUTES TO WHITE HOUSE: The New York Times goes deep on the differences between the Clinton and Sanders strategies to galvanize voters, and explains the contrast in their reads of the electorate this way:

Mr. Sanders’s ideas and intensity could energize the party’s base and, he believes, inspire a tidal wave of support from young people, ensuring a level of voter turnout that would favor the Democratic nominee….Mrs. Clinton, by embracing many of the policies of Mr. Obama and her husband, is aiming to rebuild the same coalitions that elected them, and hoping that the prospect of the first female president will draw even more women to the Democratic side this time.

What remains to be seen is whether Clinton can inspire the Obama voter groups to come out in Obama-level numbers, and that includes the younger voters that Sanders is clearly energizing.

* SANDERS VOWS MASSIVE VOTER TURNOUT: Here’s Sanders, talking about his ability to inspire turnout in a new interview with the Post:

“What this campaign is about, and I’m seeing it every day, is an excitement and energy that does not exist and will not exist in the Clinton campaign. We have the capability to have a very good voter turnout. When we have a very good voter turnout, we retain the White House, we regain the Senate, we do well in the House, and we win statewide elections.”

Well, sure, but whoever wins the Dem nomination, the House is still all but certain to remain in GOP hands into the next decade, and the problem Dems will likely continue to face is that their voters don’t turn out in midterm elections.

* RICK PERRY ENDORSES TED CRUZ: The former Texas governor and former presidential candidate announces his support for Ted Cruz, but to my mind, here is the most important nugget from his interview:

Perry, who also sought the GOP nomination before dropping out in September, said he now sees the race as one that is between Cruz, a fellow Texan, and Donald Trump.

Huh. What about Marco Rubio?

* DES MOINES REGISTER ENDORSES HILLARY: Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton picked up the coveted endorsement of the Des Moines Register, which hailed Bernie Sanders for highlighting inequality but ultimately said he would not be able to make good on his proposals:

Iowa Democrats will have to choose between the lofty idealism of Bernie Sanders and the down-to-earth pragmatism of Hillary Clinton. For some, this will be a choice of whether to vote with their hearts or their heads. Clinton has demonstrated that she is a thoughtful, hardworking public servant who has earned the respect of leaders at home and abroad. She stands ready to take on the most demanding job in the world.

The question is whether Iowa Dems accept this framing; many seem inclined towards the candidate who’s speaking directly to their desire for a major transformative moment.

* BEHOLD THE ‘OBAMA PARADOX’: E.J. Dionne explains why Sanders is doing so well among Democratic voters even though Clinton is embracing the Obama agenda to a greater degree than Sanders has:

It’s the Obama Paradox. The president has a 91 percent favorable rating among Iowa Democrats (which is why Clinton is hugging him so closely). But many Democrats who admire him still wish he had been more aggressive in sticking it to the GOP. They identify with the Sanders who told me (and anyone else who’d listen) back in 2010: “While Obama and the Democrats have a large number of achievements, it was not enough. We needed to be bolder.” Most Democrats want to be bolder now.

Yes, and additionally, Sanders is explicitly arguing that the change of the Obama years has not matched the scale of the deep challenges we face.

* AND BEHOLD DONALD TRUMP, THE UNITER: No, really, that’s what Donald Trump is now arguing on the campaign trail:

“I think I’ll get along great with a lot of people,” Trump told a crowd of 1,500 at a Christian college in northwest Iowa. “Before I was doing this, I got along with the Democrats, with the Republicans, with the liberals, with the conservatives. I get along with people.”

Watch for this pivot. If Trump argues that he’ll be “great” at uniting people, a whole lot of GOP voters just might believe it.