So as the intensity of the close Democratic race in Iowa grows almost unbearable, Bernie Sanders decided to ratchet it up another notch by flying to D.C. for a no-photo, no-statement hangout session with Barack Obama. Afterward, Sanders was able to tell the press the meeting was “productive,” and focused on foreign policy, not generally considered Bernie’s area of strength.
But the politics were pretty clear: Sanders had to do something to counter the impression that Hillary Clinton has been avidly promoting — most overtly in the NBC News debate in South Carolina on January 17 — that she was the best-equipped candidate to protect and build on Barack Obama’s legacy. This impression was undoubtedly buttressed by media interpretations of the interview Obama gave to Politico’s Glenn Thrush in which the 44th president praised his secretary of State while indirectly pouring cold water on the “political revolution” Sanders is purporting to lead. So today’s White House meeting, even if Sanders cannot say much about it, was intended to reestablish presidential neutrality. That’s a big deal in Iowa, where (according to the last Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Iowa poll) Hillary Clinton has been running even with Sanders among people who caucused for Obama in 2008. And it’s a bigger deal down the road where African-Americans begin to play a far more dominant role in Democratic primary electorates.
Maybe Sanders has some blockbuster events on tap between now and caucus night, but you get the sense he’s put his organization into motion and is now working on optics. Aside from the White House meeting, he’s beginning to manage expectations for Iowa, which were beginning to become so robust that a narrow defeat there might be perceived as devastating. First he expressed doubt that turnout would be anything like 2008’s or that he could match Obama’s margin. But, more important, he’s making it clear that he does not regard an actual win in the state as necessary for his nomination.
That may be all he can do for now, though I doubt very seriously that, once he returns to Iowa, he’s going to set foot anywhere else until the votes are counted and somebody tries not to scream.