Is Clinton or Sanders Obama's True Heir?

The Vermont senator’s bid to pick up the rhetoric of the president’s 2008 campaign exposes a rift in the Democratic Party.

Senator Bernie Sanders watches as President Obama signs the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)

With the Iowa caucuses a week away, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are doing what they can to embrace President Obama and lay claim to his mantle. Unsurprisingly, they’re seeking to connect with different elements of his legacy, and the ways in which those attempts are connecting, and with whom, seem to point toward a split between the Democratic base and Democratic officials—an establishment vs. voter split to echo the Republican Party’s own.

One major rationale for Clinton’s candidacy was that she could consolidate the gains of the Obama presidency, and perhaps build on them in some way—recognizing the difficulty of making further aggressive policy shifts after so many of them during the Obama years, particularly with a Republican House all but guaranteed for the foreseeable future. Because of her time serving as Obama’s secretary of state, Clinton had a special claim on the Obama legacy. This appeal was predicated in part on the widespread frustration among Democratic mandarins—elected officials, strategists, staffers—with Obama.

Variations on the complaint have been popping up for years: Obama doesn’t negotiate effectively. Obama has unrealistic ideas about how to make policy. Obama doesn’t understand how to work the levers of power. Obama has abandoned the state-level Democratic parties. Obama isn’t willing to get to know members of Congress in either party. Obama isn’t hawkish enough. Perhaps most importantly, Obama failed to deliver on the promise of a new era of comity in Washington. All of the idealism and lofty promises that carried Obama to victory in 2008 had become maddening to his fellow Democrats once he was in office; now they would be ready to come home to Clinton, who was the candidate to solve each of these problem. Clinton’s backers understood why voters had flocked to Obama in 2008, but they felt confident that in 2016, they’d come home to Clinton, who could both solidify Obama’s accomplishments and rectify his shortcomings.

Bernie Sanders’s success so far shows the limitations of this approach. Sanders has grabbed on to a different area of the Obama legacy: His idealistic plea for radical change, regardless of how unlikely (or impossible) the goals might seem. He offers an excitement and inspiration that Clinton can’t quite convey. Nearly four in 10 Democrats say they support Sanders nationally, and the numbers are higher in Iowa in New Hampshire.

It makes perfect sense that the things that so bedeviled Beltway Democrats wouldn’t really concern ordinary voters. Whether the Washington critics are right or wrong that Obama is bad at controlling the levels of power, it’s not a day-to-day concern for most people who aren’t trying to wrangle bills. What’s more, the average Democrat may very well look at the Obama term and see a huge record of accomplishment. That argument took a while to take root within the chattering classes, but now it’s heard by everyone from Michael Grunwald to Andrew Sullivan to Ted Cruz. If Barack did that well, a liberal Democrat might surmise, why not try for more with Bernie? It’s the very reason that both Clinton and Sanders are competing to embrace Obama closer.

Complicating Sanders’s hug is Obama’s refusal to hug him back. Although the president has been adamant he won’t endorse in the Democratic primary, it’s hard not to read a new interview with Politico’s Glenn Thrush as a defense of Clinton. He starts out acknowledging the parallel:

Glenn Thrush: The events I was at in Iowa, the candidate who seems to be delivering [optimism] now is Bernie Sanders.

President Obama: Yeah.

Thrust: I mean, when you watch this, what do you—do you see any elements of what you were able to accomplish in what Sanders is doing?

Obama: Well, there's no doubt that Bernie has tapped into a running thread in Democratic politics that says: Why are we still constrained by the terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago?

And yet he he then adds, “What Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives. I don't want to exaggerate those differences, though, because Hillary is really idealistic and progressive.” Later he questions whether Sanders can hold up during a long campaign: “I will say that the longer you go in the process, the more you’re going to have to pass a series of hurdles that the voters are going to put in front of you.”

The irony is that Obama is embracing both a critique of his presidency leveled by Democrats (that he’s unable to deliver the goods) and a critique of his candidacy leveled by Clinton in 2008 (that he isn’t ready and vetted). Still, it’s hard to claim to be the protege of a man who won’t claim you, and so Clinton—by virtue of her service to Obama’s administration, and the many Obama aides now working for her—has an easier task of it.

Many Democrats will decide who they support for reasons besides optimism. Some will vote for Clinton because of what they view as her competence. Some will do so out of a sense of loyalty, or because they’re excited by the prospect of a woman president. Some voters are genuinely excited by her.

But the split here between elite opinion and rank-and-file voters bears some closer consideration. The great focus of the last few years has been on the Republican Party’s split, and the Donald Trump candidacy has done more than ever to emphasize the divide between professional Republicans and the actual voters—with the GOP frontrunner’s candidacy proving so powerful as to create an ad-hoc Republican establishment able to encompass such disparate conservative figures as Erick Erickson, Bill Kristol, Brent Bozell, and Rich Lowry.

But there is a genuine divide in the Democratic Party over the two candidates. In FiveThirtyEight's table of endorsements, Clinton has 459 points to Sanders’s, um, two. It’s fashionable to deride Beltway operators, and they and the journalists who covered their concerns may have made too much of Obama’s struggles with his own party, failing to recognize how little the average voter cared. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong, though. At the state and local level, the Democratic Party is battered and shrinking, for example; consummate party loyalist Hillary Clinton would seem much more likely to focus on that than Bernie Sanders, who only formally joined the party recently. And while Obama’s track record may debunk the argument that a skilled insider like Clinton is what the country needs, it’s important to remember the warnings of the 2008 campaign. During the primary, he insisted—over the objections of Clinton—that an individual mandate wasn’t necessary for health care. Once in the White House, changed his mind. That doesn’t mean Obama was dishonest, but it might mean he was naive, the same charged hurled at Sanders now.

Sanders, like Trump, is a threat pointed directly at the party establishment. He argues that the party is part of the system, and the system is broken. He suggests that politicians in both parties, including Clinton, are bought and paid for by Wall Street. That’s a key difference between Sanders and Obama: Obama may have thwarted a party consensus behind Clinton in 2008, but he was a loyal Democrat. Likening himself to Obama represents something of a retreat from his purest radicalism, Sanders’s concession to the realities of running in a Democratic primary. The fact that Sanders is not a party man remains both his greatest asset and his biggest challenge.