When President Barack Obama was asked by Politico this week whether Bernie Sanders' populist campaign reminded him of his own 2008 run, the president quickly rejected the notion. “No,” Obama responded. “I don't think that's true.”
While Obama didn't elaborate, former top aides weren't reticent to say they view Hillary Clinton—not the insurgent Vermont senator whose rhetoric has drawn comparisons to Obama—as the natural heir to the president.
“Then-Senator Obama ran for President to tackle longstanding challenges that our country had debated for decades but was unable to resolve. A ‘politics as the art of the possible’ candidate,” Ben LaBolt, a national spokesman for Obama's 2012 campaign, said in an e-mail. “Senator Sanders has been in Congress for decades but hasn't tackled any major longstanding challenges—he's been too busy shouting his point of view across the aisle with few results.”
Jon Favreau, who worked on the Obama 2008 campaign before becoming a speechwriter for the president, said Sanders' campaign “resembles Howard Dean's a lot more than it resembles Barack Obama's.” In key respects, he said, “Hillary is much closer to Obama than Bernie is.”
Obama “campaigned as an idealist in terms of the goals he articulated but a pragmatist when it came to the policies needed to reach those goals. And he had very, very detailed policies that were grounded in pragmatism,” said Favreau, who nevertheless praised Sanders as genuine. “Obama has always believed it's more important to take action that actually makes a difference now and improves people's lives instead of settling for the satisfying purity of moral indignation.”
Obama and Sanders used transcendent rhetoric to inspire millions of progressives, particularly younger voters. But unlike Sanders' ambitious proposals, which rely on a “political revolution,” Obama's policies were center-left and rooted in political reality, the former staffers said. Where Obama proposed to help the uninsured and those with preexisting conditions, Sanders proposes to replace private insurance with a single-payer system. Where Obama vowed to protect consumers from predatory banking practices, Sanders says he would break up the largest financial institutions.
Obama “certainly championed progressive policies, first and foremost his opposition to the Iraq war, but I think part of his appeal stemmed from the fact that he is pragmatic and had a history of working across the aisle in the Illinois state senate,” said Tommy Vietor, a former Obama 2008 campaign aide and spokesman for the National Security Council. “I think the tone of the Sanders campaign and Obama’s 08 race are different.”
Idealism vs. Pragmatism
Where Clinton excels at pragmatism and Sanders excels at idealistic rhetoric, Obama's unique talent was to meld both.
Jared Bernstein, a former economist in the Obama White House, said Clinton “seems like more of an incrementalist based on her platform versus Bernie's platform. But I don't know how Bernie Sanders would govern. ... When I hear Bernie Sanders say the things he says I think that's tremendously inspirational, I see where that's coming from, but I'd also like to hear Plan B.”
By contrast, former Obama aides see a pragmatism to Clinton's approach, borne by her mix of executive and legislative experience, that reflects the president's own vision. While Obama veterans have praise for Sanders, some believe the pragmatic streak makes Clinton a better fit to govern in a political reality that would require grinding out incremental victories though legislation that will be constrained by a likely Republican-run House, and executive actions.
“In terms of approach to governing, clearly Secretary Clinton is closer to the president,” said Anita Dunn, a top policy and communications aide to Obama's 2008 campaign who went on to serve as White House communications director. “The president aims big, pushes as much as he can to get as much as he can, but at the end of the day he's willing to accept that he may need to compromise.”
The campaign arcs also have some differences. By this point, Obama picked up endorsements from powerful party actors—the so-called invisible primary that political scientists say is historically critical in nominating contests—such as Ted Kennedy, then-Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, and Senator Claire McCaskill. Now, Clinton is thoroughly dominating that contest with hundreds of endorsements from lawmakers and governors, while Sanders has a mere two congressional endorsements, both in the House. Labor unions, which split between Obama and Clinton in 2008, are overwhelmingly behind Clinton.
Dunn called that a “huge difference” between 2008 Obama and 2016 Sanders.
David Plouffe, Obama's former campaign manager, “used to talk about building a permission structure so people felt they could support Barack Obama,” she said. “Senator Obama having the support of prominent party elders and politicians—established people—was a way of telling voters it was OK to be with him.”