Paul Krugman noted the other day that there’s a “mini-dispute among Democrats” over who has the best claim to President Obama’s mantle: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The New York Times columnist made the persuasive case that the answer is obvious: “Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama.”
The framing is compelling for reasons that are probably obvious. As a candidate, Obama was the upstart outsider taking on a powerful rival – named Hillary Clinton – who was widely expected to prevail. As president, Obama has learned to temper some of his grander ambitions, confront the cold realities of governing in prose, and make incremental-but-historic gains through attrition and by navigating past bureaucratic choke points.
But the closer one looks at the Obama-Sanders parallels, the more they start to disappear.
Comparing the core messages, for example, reinforces the differences. In 2008, Obama’s pitch was rooted in hopeful optimism, while in 2016, Sanders’ message is based on a foundation of outrage. In 2008, red-state Democrats welcomed an Obama nomination – many in the party saw him as having far broader appeal in conservative areas than Clinton – while in 2016, red-state Democrats appear panicked by the very idea of a Sanders nomination.
At its root, however, this is an idealism-vs-pragmatism debate, with Sanders claiming the former to Clinton’s latter. New York’s Jon Chait argues that this kind of framing misunderstands what Candidate Obama was offering eight years ago.
The young Barack Obama was already famous for his soaring rhetoric, but from today’s perspective, what is striking about his promises is less their idealism than their careful modulation.
What Obama did eight years ago, Chait added, was make his technocratic pragmatism “lyrical” – a feat Clinton won’t even try to pull off – promising incremental changes in inspirational ways.
That’s not Sanders’ pitch at all. In many respects, it’s the opposite. Whatever your opinion of the Vermonter, there’s nothing about his platform that’s incremental. The independent senator doesn’t talk about common ground and bipartisan cooperation; he envisions a political “revolution” that changes the very nature of the political process.
The president himself seems well aware of the differences between what Greg Sargent calls the competing “theories of change.” Obama had a fascinating conversation late last week with Politico’s Glenn Thrush, and while the two covered quite a bit of ground, this exchange is generating quite a bit of attention for good reason.
THRUSH: The events I was at in Iowa, the candidate who seems to be delivering that now is Bernie Sanders.OBAMA: Yeah.THRUSH: 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? You know, why is it that we should be scared to challenge conventional wisdom and talk bluntly about inequality and, you know, be full-throated in our progressivism? And, you know, that has an appeal and I understand that.I think that 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. You’d have to be to be in, you know, the position she’s in now, having fought all the battles she’s fought and, you know, taken so many, you know, slings and arrows from the other side. And Bernie, you know, is somebody who was a senator and served on the Veterans’ Committee and got bills done. And so the–THRUSH: But it sounds like you’re not buying the – you’re not buying the sort of, the easy popular dichotomy people are talking about, where he’s an analog for you and she is herself?OBAMA: No. No.THRUSH: You don’t buy that, right?OBAMA: No, I don’t think – I don’t think that’s true.
The electoral salience of comments like these remains to be seen, but the president is subtly taking an important shot at the rationale of Sanders’ candidacy. For any Democratic voters watching the presidential primary unfold, looking at Sanders as the rightful heir to the “change” mantle, here’s Obama effectively saying he and Sanders believe in very different kinds of governing, based on incompatible models of achieving meaningful results.