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Sanders Considered Primarying Obama in 2012: Report

Trouble in paradise. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democratic voters would nominate Barack Obama again if they could. The former president’s in-party approval rating is consistently above 90 percent. When a Harvard-Harris poll asked Democratic voters to identify themselves as a particular type of Democrat, the most popular label by far — outstripping “moderate,” “liberal” and “progressive” — was “Obama Democrat.”

None of this is lost on the 2020 Democratic field. Both Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg have aired campaign ads designed to mislead viewers into thinking they’ve secured Barack Obama’s endorsement. The former vice president (hypocritically) took Bloomberg to task over the issue on Wednesday. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, have tried to downplay their past critiques of the first black president.

For the Vermont senator, this task was always going to be a bit tricky. In 2011, as the Obama administration responded to the Tea Party’s midterm triumph by pivoting toward deficit reduction and austerity, Sanders publicly argued that it “would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition.”

“There are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president — who believe that, with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president; who cannot believe how weak he has been, for whatever reason, in negotiating with Republicans, and there’s deep disappointment,” Sanders told progressive radio host Thom Hartman in July of that year.

Sanders’s remarks attracted some attention during his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton. But Clinton never felt threatened enough by Sanders to mount a sustained negative paid-messaging campaign against him, and the Hartman interview wasn’t widely disseminated.

But now Bernie Sanders is the Democratic frontrunner. And some Obama White House veterans have decided to call attention to the socialist senator’s 2011 dissidence; specifically, they’ve leaked word that, in truth, Sanders did not merely call for someone to primary Obama but seriously considered doing so himself. As The Atlantic’s Edward Isaac-Dovere reports:

Bernie Sanders got so close to running a primary challenge to President Barack Obama that Senator Harry Reid had to intervene to stop him.

It took Reid two conversations over the summer of 2011 to get Sanders to scrap the idea, according to multiple people who remember the incident, which has not been previously reported.

That summer, Sanders privately discussed a potential primary challenge to Obama with several people, including Patrick Leahy, his fellow Vermont senator. Leahy, alarmed, warned Jim Messina, Obama’s presidential reelection-campaign manager. Obama’s campaign team was “absolutely panicked” by Leahy’s report, Messina told me, since “every president who has gotten a real primary has lost a general [election].”

David Plouffe, another Obama strategist, confirmed Messina’s account, as did another person familiar with what happened.

This is a less-than-ideal story for the Sanders campaign. And Biden will doubtlessly try to make an issue of it at tonight’s debate in Nevada. But if Sanders has to own up to a past dispute with Obama, it’s hard to imagine a fight he’d rather relitigate than the one The Atlantic emphasizes. As Isaac-Dovere notes, Sanders’s opposition to the Obama administration’s attempts to trade Social Security cuts for tax hikes (as part of a “Grand Bargain” on deficit reduction) did not end when the the senator’s primary plans did:

The low point between the two men was a 2013 meeting with other Democratic senators. Obama had just put a chained Consumer Price Index in his budget, a proposal that would cut Social Security benefits by tying them to the rate of inflation. Many Senate Democrats were angry about it. But when they arrived for the meeting, it was Sanders who bubbled up, ripping into Obama for giving in to Republicans and not understanding the impact of the cuts.

“I don’t need a lecture,” Obama told him, according to several senators who attended the meeting. Sanders proceeded to give him one anyway. A number of the senators there were struck by what they told me seemed like a lack of respect.

“Obama fairly forcefully pushed back and said, ‘That’s just not right — that’s not a vision that’s enactable or possible,’” one senator in the room recalled, asking for anonymity to discuss the private meeting. “‘You’re acting like I’m the enemy.’ Obama was trying to say, ‘I hear you that you want this revolution, but explain to me, how’s this going to happen?

Look at the current makeup of the Senate and the House. How am I supposed to lead?’” Obama said, in this senator’s memory … In the end, most of the caucus took the position that Sanders voiced, opposing the chained Consumer Price Index, and Obama relented and dropped the idea.

Although I’m highly sympathetic to Bernie Sanders, I do think that the Vermont senator privileges ideology above realism on some issues (e.g., nuclear power) and underestimates the congressional obstacles to change on others.

But this isn’t one of those issues.

In fact, Sanders was undeniably correct that Obama’s proposed Social Security cuts were neither politically nor substantively necessary. Republicans did not have the leverage to force such (deeply unpopular) benefit cuts. America was not on the verge of a debt crisis that required action of some kind; in fact, by 2020, the conventional wisdom among center-left economists would hold that our nation’s (now much larger) public debt levels are likely sustainable and that deficit reduction should not be a top fiscal priority. Finally, the Trump era’s spending spree has made it abundantly clear (if it somehow wasn’t already) that the Tea Party was not fueled by the GOP base’s good-faith concerns over unbalanced budgets but by its virulent opposition to nonwhite immigration.

Thus, the right answer to the question, “How was Obama supposed to lead?” was simple: By not allowing Mitch McConnell and the Beltway press to lead him into a political trap. If Obama had had his way, Senate Democrats would have needlessly hurt their own constituents while enabling the Republican Party to mendaciously campaign against “the Democrats’ entitlement cuts” in 2016 (as they had done in 2012). Instead, Sanders won the argument — and now there is a bipartisan consensus against cutting Social Security benefits for seniors (though not for the disabled). In a sane world, this would be a good story for the Sanders campaign.

How it plays in this world remains to be seen.

Sanders Considered Primarying Obama in 2012: Report