Bernie vs. Barack

Bernie Sanders isn’t just running against Hillary Clinton. He’s also running against Barack Obama – and he’s losing.

Bernie Sanders at a town meeting in Phoenix, Arizona / Photo by Gage Skidmore

Bernie Sanders at a town meeting in Phoenix, Arizona / Photo by Gage Skidmore

If there was any doubt that Bernie Sanders was running against Barack Obama in his campaign to be the next president, the past week should wipe it away. The senator’s campaign stood by an endorsement, shown above and emblazoned across the top of a new book about President Obama’s tenure, published last week.

“Bill Press makes the case… read this book.” —Senator Bernie Sanders

Below the blurb, the book’s title makes clear what case Mr. Press is making: BUYER’S REMORSE: How Obama Let Progressives Down.

Now, Bernie has made clear that while he and the president have “differences of opinion” on key issues – like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, or FDA nominees – they agree on most things. In a CNN Town Hall on Wednesday he denied the blurb was a “ringing endorsement” of the Bill Press book and praised the president’s record. He is an also an insurgent candidate, channeling very real anger felt by millions of Americans who feel cheated by the political system.

However, there is a growing sense that the Sanders campaign’s choice of slogan – “A Future We Can Believe In”, only a few syllables and eight years away from Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” – is less an homage than a promise of a do-over. In a recent spat over whether Clinton is a true progressive, the Sanders campaign alleged four transgressions: her Iraq war vote, her past support for the TPP, her delayed opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and her campaign’s Wall Street fundraising. All but one (Iraq) would also disqualify the president. 

Amid tightening polls Hillary Clinton’s campaign has taken note of the tension between her opponent’s rhetoric Obama’s legacy, and she has already tried to use it to put Sanders on the defensive. At the most recent Democratic debate Clinton pointed out areas where Sanders had broken with the president in the past, including remarks in 2012 suggesting a primary challenge from the left would be a “good idea.” Bernie scowled.

Commentators at the time pointed out that the debate, which was being held in South Carolina, took place before a mostly African American audience likely to be especially sympathetic to President Obama. Recent polls reveal somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of African Americans approve of the president. Polls have also shown Clinton with a massive lead in the state of South Carolina. 

And therein lies the problem for Sanders.

While Clinton could come to regret tying herself too tightly to Obama in a general election, in the primary it puts her in league with the vast majority of Democrats. Not only that, such an appeal is likely to connect with exactly the voters Bernie Sanders will need if we wants to compete after Iowa and New Hampshire. Likely primary voters in Iowa, where Sanders recently came within 0.2 percent of Clinton, and New Hampshire, where Sanders retains massive leads in recent polls, are lily-white and especially liberal.

That won’t be the case in Nevada, where Democrats caucus on February 20th, or South Carolina, where they vote on February 27th. The lopsided demography of Bernie’s support isn’t set in stone – even Barack Obama trailed among African Americans late into 2007. Only after a series of important endorsements, his stunning success at the Iowa Caucus and repeated missteps by the Clinton campaign did Obama turn African Americans into a reliable bloc of support.

And the Sanders message of “political revolution” does appear to resonate with a large swathe of voters. A recent poll by YouGov found that 51 percent of likely Democratic primary voters nationwide sometimes feel “mad as hell” with the way things are going in the country. Sanders trails Clinton by 12 points overall in the poll, but leads by six with angry voters.  Similarly, he leads by 11 points among Democratic voters who say the country is “off on the wrong track” and leads by two among those who don’t strongly approve of the president’s job performance. Unfortunate for Bernie, both of these latter groups make up less than half of likely Democratic voters. They are also disproportionately white and young.

Sanders clearly gives a voice to a large and perhaps growing segment of the Democratic electorate, many who may be dissatisfied with the scope or ambition of Obama-era change. But as he looks beyond Iowa, and towards building a coalition that is more representative of the party as a whole (not to mention the country), he will need to avoid alienating supporters of the president. Barack Obama remains – if not the most progressive – the most popular figure in the party.

Early in the 2012 presidential campaign Republican Mitt Romney made clear he wanted to make the election a referendum on Obama. It would be a mistake for Bernie Sanders to do the same in the 2016 Democratic primary.

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