Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton argue during a 2008 presidential debate at the University of Texas in Austin. During that year's Democratic primary, Obama benefited from having the media direct much of its scrutiny at the front-running Clinton. (LM Otero/AP)

It's a complaint you've heard over and over from President Obama's detractors ever since he was elected in 2008: The youthful, first-term senator from Illinois who captivated voters with soaring rhetoric and the promise of hope and change wasn't thoroughly vetted by the media.

That's the only way he could have won, you see; had the public known more about him (i.e. had the press done its job), people never would have elected him. Or so the argument goes.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of probing Obama journalism from the 2008 election and, in any case, Americans reelected him in 2012 after what is indisputably the most rigorous vetting process anyone can go through — you know, actually being president. All of which undercuts the notion that people only voted for him because they didn't know enough about him.

However, even Obama now seems to recognize that he got off easy in the media early in the 2008 primary season, when he was an underdog chasing the heavy favorite, Hillary Clinton.

That acknowledgement is buried in an interview with Glenn Thrush that Politico published Monday morning. The president was discussing the current Democratic nominating contest between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which bears some striking similarities to Obama's match-up with Clinton eight years ago. Obama suggested that Clinton, his first-term secretary of state, has borne the front-runner's burden of scrutiny but that things could change quickly:

I think that if Bernie won Iowa or won New Hampshire, 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.

Obama is right, by the way. As I recently wrote, Sanders — who has been clamoring for more media coverage — should be careful what he wishes for. If he starts winning, he'll face a whole new level of exposure.

The president offered his Sanders-media prediction as one speaking from experience. He recalled that "after I won Iowa, then suddenly things are flipped." Obama consistently led polls in New Hampshire during the run-up to the primary there but lost to Clinton.

And I remember saying to [advisers], "You know what? This is probably a good thing. This is how our democracy should work, because some untested kid should not be able to just win one caucus and suddenly he's the nominee." And the voters, in their wisdom, said, "You know what? We've got to run this guy through the paces a little bit." And the press did the same thing. And so you end up having that kind of process.

In other words, the media didn't really put Obama through the wringer until after his victory in the Iowa caucuses. Before then, he was just a compelling upstart who was making the Democratic nominating contest more interesting than most journalists had anticipated. He was a lot like Sanders in that way.

Coverage of Obama did intensify, just as it will for Sanders if he beats Clinton in one of the early-voting states, and he ultimately handled the attention well enough to win the general election. But that was after he had already started winning and set himself on a path for the nomination and the presidency. It isn't hard to make an argument that, had more scrutiny come earlier, things might not have turned out the same way.

And for Obama critics who love to say that he got a pass from the media, these remarks to Politico will likely reinforce their argument. Even the president thinks he had it pretty good — for a while, at least.