As The New York Times reported on Thursday, Obama privately told a group of Democratic donors in Austin, TX that they needed to unite behind Hillary Clinton because Sanders would soon have to end his presidential bid. “Mr. Obama acknowledged that Mrs. Clinton was perceived to have weaknesses as a candidate, and that some Democrats did not view her as authentic,” Maggie Haberman and Michael D. Shear wrote. “But he played down the importance of authenticity, noting that President George W. Bush — whose record he ran aggressively against in 2008 — was once praised for his authenticity.” According to those in attendance, the president’s comments seemed to be intended “as a signal to Mr. Sanders that perpetuating his campaign, which is now an uphill climb, could only help the Republicans recapture the White House.”
Let’s go through the reasons why Obama is wrong here.
1. Clinton isn’t necessarily the best candidate to defeat Trump.
This point doesn’t require a lot of explanation, so I’ll get it out of the way now: Whereas polls show Clinton ahead of Donald Trump by 10-to-13 points, they show Sanders ahead of him by 15-to-18 points. Granted, these are both hefty margins, and a case could be made that Sanders’ numbers would fall if voters became more familiar with his democratic socialist views (more on those in Point #3). Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom that Clinton is a more practical choice than Sanders isn’t particularly wise at all.
2. The Democratic primaries are by no means over.
In order to be nominated, a Democratic presidential candidate needs to win 2,383 delegates. Although Clinton seems to be two-thirds of the way there at 1,614, 467 of those are superdelegates – i.e., individuals chosen by party leaders rather than through a primary or caucus election, and who can choose whomever they want. Most importantly, whereas elected delegates are bound to support their candidate at the national convention, superdelegates are free to change their mind at any time and for any reason. Consequently, Clinton’s solid delegate total is actually 1,147, whereas Sanders (who only has 26 superdelegates in his corner) comes in a close second at 830. None of this is intended to downplay Sanders’ disadvantage. Even political analysts who theorize about how he could pull off an upset have acknowledge that, although he is likely to win many of the upcoming primary and caucus states, the prevailing demographic trends within the party strongly suggest that he can’t broaden his base of support enough to wrest the nomination away from Clinton. Nevertheless, an election isn’t over until every vote has been counted, and Sanders is close enough to Clinton right now that it’s premature to write him off.
3. Sanders isn’t just a candidate – he is a cause.
Although Clinton and Sanders are closer to each other ideologically than many of their supporters would like to admit, Sanders is not in this race merely to satisfy his own ambition. There is a good reason why the Vermonter refers to himself as a “democratic socialist” – he is much more left-wing than Clinton on a wide range of social, economic, and foreign policy issues. If it wasn’t for Sanders, income inequality wouldn’t be featured nearly as prominently in Democratic political discussions, and considering Clinton’s well-known coziness with Wall Street, there is a strong possibility that breaking up the banks wouldn’t have been brought up at all.
In addition to making this a better primary race, Sanders’ presence in the campaign could also make Clinton a better president. Recent history is littered with the names of Democratic presidents who were pushed to the left when progressive insurgents challenged them in the primaries, from Franklin Roosevelt (who proposed his second New Deal in part as a response to the radical candidacy of Huey Long) to John Kennedy (who became more outspoken in favor of civil rights after the issue was brought to the fore by Hubert Humphrey). While Sanders has already succeeded in pushing Clinton to the left, his continued presence in the race will make it clear to her that his ideals aren’t transient. If Clinton wants the support of his followers – and, for that matter, to demonstrate her authenticity – she needs to deliver on the progressive values that she now advocates in no small part because of Sanders.
4. Obama’s own experience contradicts his argument.
Perhaps the most galling thing about Obama’s comments is their lack of self-awareness. Does he not recall a certain idealistic United States Senator who, despite being virtually unknown outside of progressive circles, waged a grueling presidential primary battle against Hillary Clinton? A man who, because he was widely dismissed as unelectable, was frequently told that campaigning against Clinton was only increasing the likelihood that a Republican would occupy the White House for another four years?
Of course, the roles eventually reversed in the 2008 presidential election; after Obama took the lead in the primaries, Clinton was the one being told to drop out for the good of the country. Yet despite each candidate being urged to leave the race due to the other one’s presumed “inevitability,” it turned out that the fierce primary battle didn’t cause them fatal damage when it came time for the general election.
It’s understandable why Obama prefers Clinton over Sanders. Both philosophically and practically, a Clinton presidency would constitute an effective third term for Obama, validating his presidency and extending his policy agenda for at least another four years. If he wants to come out and endorse Clinton, he has every right to do so. However, by working behind the scenes to effectively deny Sanders his chance at being nominated, Obama is committing an unfairness not only to Sanders, but to the Democratic Party itself. Regardless of whether we choose Clinton or Sanders, that decision should be left up to us. We don’t need our own president putting his thumb on the scales.