Obama Hosts Sanders, But Stays Neutral in WH Race

Obama Hosts Sanders, But Stays Neutral in WH Race
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Let’s stipulate: It is rare that President Obama encourages another Democrat to grab headlines outside the iconic columns of the West Wing. The appearance of Sen. Bernie Sanders at the microphones in the White House driveway after a 45-minute meeting Wednesday with the president in the Oval Office was a message unto itself.

Five days after singing Hillary Clinton’s praises during an interview with Politico, and days before the Iowa caucuses, Obama put Sanders on his daily schedule, aiming to demonstrate that he is “publicly neutral in the presidential race,” as White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest put it. Sanders asked the president for a private meeting when the two men spoke during a holiday party for members of Congress last month. It was the second time the Democratic socialist, who served for two years in the Senate with Obama and is seeking to succeed him as president, met one-on-one in the Oval Office with his former colleague.

The Vermont senator, Earnest said, “doesn’t have a long personal relationship with the president of the United States” in the same way that Obama is tied to his first-term secretary of state. Former White House, State and Justice Department staff members hold top posts in Clinton’s presidential campaign, and information goes both directions in the pipeline. Clinton has occasionally lunched alone with Obama at the White House and speaks to him by phone. The two had a private, 90-minute tete-a-tete in early December, a get-together kept under wraps and off Obama’s daily schedule until it was over.

“The president has made no secret of the fact that over the years of campaigning against one another and then working together in the administration, that the two have become genuine friends,” Earnest said of his boss’s admiration for Clinton. “That said, the president has also been clear that, you know, at this point, he does not plan to offer up a specific endorsement in the presidential race.”

Obama will vote by absentee ballot in the Illinois primary in March, but he has no current plans to publicly endorse a candidate before a Democratic nominee is known, his spokesman said. Whether the president privately endorses Clinton over Sanders is another question, and Earnest did little to discourage the conclusion that Clinton is the potential successor Obama backs.

The president on Friday called Clinton “wicked smart” and said she is experienced, tough, progressive, idealistic and familiar with a range of domestic and international issues. In contrast, the president described Sanders as “fearless,” and likened him to a “bright, shiny object” – a newcomer to national politics who has the advantage of campaigning with one central theme.

The president’s fierce urgency to be Switzerland during an intra-party fight between the progressive left and the Democratic mainstream comes as Sanders’ momentum has surged in Iowa and New Hampshire, suggesting to observers that the early-state victor may not turn out to be the candidate who is most energetically wrapping her arms around Obama and his agenda.

“The president is doing his best to allow the candidates to make their own case in the Democratic primary process,” Earnest continued, and he “expects to be very actively and personally engaged in the general election to support those candidates that actually are interested in building on the progress that this country has made in the seven years of his presidency.”

Sanders, standing outside the West Wing lobby with his wife, Jane, heaped praise on the president and said Obama and Vice President Biden “tried to be fair and even-handed in the process, and I expect they will continue to be that way.”

To beat Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders said his campaign needs high turnout, and he expressed admiration for Obama’s 2008 success in identifying new voters, inspiring them to participate and then getting them to caucus on a Monday night. “I'm not saying we could do what Barack Obama did in 2008. I wish we could but I don't think we can,” he told reporters.

Still, Sanders expressed confidence in his chances. Dressed in a black wool coat and poised to fly to an Iowa rally after talking with Obama, he said support from younger voters and mobilization of “working people [who] want to see real movement in this country” could make the difference in Iowa Feb. 1, in New Hampshire Feb. 9, and in Nevada and South Carolina at the end of next month.

“We’re feeling really good about where we are,” he said.

Did Obama give the senator any advice about how to beat Clinton?

Sanders laughed at the question. “No, no.”

Will the White House offer assistance and information to Sanders in the same way it does to Clinton?

The president’s spokesman replied: “When Senator Sanders needs to communicate with the president or senior members of the White House team here, he has the capacity to do that.”

On Wednesday, he proved that point.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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