(Bloomberg) — When President Barack Obama was asked by Politico this week whether Bernie Sanders’ populist campaign reminded him of his own 2008 run, the president quickly rejected the notion. “No,” Obama responded. “I don’t think that’s true.”
While Obama didn’t elaborate, former top aides weren’t reticent to say they view Hillary Clinton—not the insurgent Vermont Sen. whose rhetoric has drawn comparisons to Obama—as the natural heir to the president.
“Then-Sen. Obama ran for President to tackle longstanding challenges that our country had debated for decades but was unable to resolve. A ‘politics as the art of the possible’ candidate,” Ben LaBolt, a national spokesman for Obama’s 2012 campaign, said in an e-mail. “Sen. Sanders has been in Congress for decades but hasn’t tackled any major longstanding challenges—he’s been too busy shouting his point of view across the aisle with few results.”
Jon Favreau, who worked on the Obama 2008 campaign before becoming a speechwriter for the president, said Sanders’ campaign “resembles Howard Dean’s a lot more than it resembles Barack Obama’s.” In key respects, he said, “Hillary is much closer to Obama than Bernie is.”
Obama “campaigned as an idealist in terms of the goals he articulated but a pragmatist when it came to the policies needed to reach those goals. And he had very, very detailed policies that were grounded in pragmatism,” said Favreau, who nevertheless praised Sanders as genuine. “Obama has always believed it’s more important to take action that actually makes a difference now and improves people’s lives instead of settling for the satisfying purity of moral indignation.”
Obama and Sanders used transcendent rhetoric to inspire millions of progressives, particularly younger voters. But unlike Sanders’ ambitious proposals, which rely on a “political revolution,” Obama’s policies were center-left and rooted in political reality, the former staffers said. Where Obama proposed to help the uninsured and those with preexisting conditions, Sanders proposes to replace private insurance with a single-payer system. Where Obama vowed to protect consumers from predatory banking practices, Sanders says he would break up the largest financial institutions.
Obama “certainly championed progressive policies, first and foremost his opposition to the Iraq war, but I think part of his appeal stemmed from the fact that he is pragmatic and had a history of working across the aisle in the Illinois state senate,” said Tommy Vietor, a former Obama 2008 campaign aide and spokesman for the National Security Council. “I think the tone of the Sanders campaign and Obama’s 08 race are different.”
Idealism versus pragmatism
Where Clinton excels at pragmatism and Sanders excels at idealistic rhetoric, Obama’s unique talent with to meld both.