At the heart of the Democratic primary contest is a dispute over whether or not progressives should demand more from a presidency than Barack Obama has delivered. Hillary Clinton is running for the president’s third term. Bernie Sanders is running to promote social-democratic programs that Obama never proposed, let alone enacted. The Clinton campaign has expended much effort on trying to highlight the implicit critique of the Obama legacy buried within Sanders’s platform. But on Thursday, the Vermont senator did his own highlighting.
“There’s a huge gap right now between Congress and the American people,” Sanders told MSNBC on Thursday afternoon. “What presidential leadership is about [is] closing that gap.”
When asked if Obama had closed that gap, Sanders replied. “No, I don’t. I mean, I think he has made the effort.”
On Thursday night in Milwaukee, Clinton made sure to relay the Vermont senator’s views on this subject.
“Today, Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential-leadership test,” Clinton said. “This is not the first time that he’s criticized president Obama. In the past, he’s called him weak, he’s called him a disappointment. He wrote a forward for a book that basically argued that voters should have buyer’s remorse about Obama’s legacy.”
“It is the kind of criticism … that I expect to hear from Republicans, not from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama,” she added.
“Madam Secretary, that is a low blow,” Sanders said, once the audience had stopped cheering. The Vermont senator touted the “enormous progress” the president has made in the face of Republican obstructionism. Sanders praised Obama from saving the economy from the brink of collapse in 2008 (a “rigged” economy is, apparently, still better than a depressed one.) But then, the democratic socialist defended his right to dissent.
“Last I heard we live in a democratic society. Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with a president. Including a president who has done such an extraordinary job,” he said. “But this blurb that you talk about, you know what that blurb said: The next president needs to be aggressive about bringing people into the political process. That is what I have said, that is what I believe.”
Judging by their response, the audience seemed to believe this as well. Clinton replied that she was not concerned about disagreement on issues.
“Calling the president weak, calling him a disappointment, calling for him to have a primary opponent when he ran for re-election in 2012 — ya know, I think that goes further than saying we have our disagreements.”
In 2011, Sanders did say that it would be “a good idea for our democracy and for the Democratic Party,” if there were a primary challenge to Obama. On Thursday night, he did not have to say whether he still believes it was a “good idea” to say all that, because the moment Clinton brought it up, it was time for closing statements.
Still, Sanders did find time to suggest that, on the issue of running primary challenges against Obama, Clinton might be tossing stones in a glass house.
“One of us ran against Barack Obama,” Sanders said. “I was not that candidate.”