IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

First Read: Sanders and Obama have a complicated relationship

As the two Democratic presidential candidates participate in another debate tonight, it's an appropriate time to address one of the elephants in the room.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks on stage after declaring victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Primary on Feb. 9, 2016 in Concord, N.H. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks on stage after declaring victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Primary on Feb. 9, 2016 in Concord, N.H. 

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama — it's complicated

As the two Democratic presidential candidates participate in another debate tonight and with the South Carolina primary just more than two weeks away, it's an appropriate time to address one of the elephants in the room -- Sanders' complicated relationship with President Obama. In fact, it's one of the central tensions in Sanders' entire campaign: How does a Democratic presidential candidate call for a political "revolution" when the current president is Barack Obama? And it's a tension that you can be sure Hillary Clinton is going to try to exploit at tonight's debate and as she today picks up the endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus' campaign arm. On the one hand, Sanders and Obama had a cordial meeting a few weeks ago; Sanders praised him at the last debate in New Hampshire ("I think he has done an excellent job"); and Sanders has borrowed heavily from Obama's 2008 playbook (the online fundraising, the calls for change). On the other hand, Sanders has campaigned with Obama critics like Cornel West (who has called the president "a Rockefeller Republican in blackface"); he is proposing a single-payer health-care system to supplant Obamacare; and his crusade to break up the big banks is an acknowledgment that Sanders believes Obama didn't go far enough with Dodd-Frank.

How Sanders manages the Obama relationship — and how Clinton exploits it — will be one the biggest South Carolina storylines

The exit polls from New Hampshire also underscore this Sanders-Obama tension: 40% of Democratic primary voters said that the next president should generally continue President Obama's policies, and Hillary Clinton won those voters, 63%-37%. But 42% want the next president to change to more liberal policies, and Sanders won those folks, 82%-17%. What's more, 63% of New Hampshire primary voters said they supported replacing the current health-care system with a single-payer plan, and Sanders won these people by a 71%-29% margin. One of Hillary Clinton's weaknesses in this Democratic race is that she doesn't have a message for proposing something new to Democrats. But maybe Sanders' biggest weakness is that the changes he's calling for represent a rebuke to the current occupant of the White House. And how Sanders manages this conflict -- and how Clinton exploits it -- will be one of the biggest storylines heading into the South Carolina contest later this month.

Hillary's own tension: For her to win the 2016 Democratic nomination, Clintonism had to die

That's the smart take from Bloomberg: "That is the defining formulation of her 2016 campaign—and it stands to challenge her throughout both the primaries and a general election. As she trekked from campaign stop to campaign stop in New Hampshire this past week, Hillary Clinton worked to juggle nostalgia for past Clinton primary campaigns in the state with the fact that the Bill of 1992 or the Hillary of 2008 would likely be a marginal figure within today's Democratic politics. 'Could a young Bill Clinton with his talents and his ability to think through complex issues and express his conclusions intelligently enough, could that Bill Clinton be nominated by the Democratic Party? You betcha,' said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who helped write Clinton's speech laying out his 'New Covenant' agenda. 'Could he take the DLC platform of 1991 and sell it now? The answer is no.'"

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's super … delegates

As one of us wrote yesterday, Bernie Sanders won New Hampshire by a whopping 22 percentage points on Tuesday. But as of right now, Sanders and Clinton are tied in acquiring New Hampshire delegates, 15-15, with two more delegates still undecided. How is that possible? The answer: It's due to the superdelegates in the Democratic contest — that is, the elected and party officials that are allowed to make their own pick regardless of how their home state votes. And of New Hampshire's eight superdelegates, six of them have pledged support to Hillary Clinton, while the other two aren't committed. Overall, according to the AP's count, Clinton has endorsements from more than 360 Democratic superdelegates, versus eight for Sanders. According to our back-of-envelope math, that means that Sanders must win 54% of the remaining delegates to get to the magic number of 2,382 delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination, while Clinton needs to win just 46%. That is a HUGE advantage, especially when you consider that the 2008 Democratic delegate race between Barack Obama and Clinton was essentially a 52%-48% affair. Now there's one caveat to all of this: If Sanders does win a majority of the bound delegates, there will be ENORMOUS pressure on the supers to back him. And that pressure could likely lead to many elected supers -- perhaps worried about a future Dem primary -- to suddenly get cold feet on Clinton and simply promise to support the Dem who wins their district or state. Then again, this is one the disadvantages of Sanders never being a Democrat until now.

Cruz vs. Trump

As the GOP candidates campaign in South Carolina (with that primary nine days away), NBC's Vaughn Hillyard flags this email from Cruz hitting Trump. "The results of the first two states are in, and it's clear that we are down to a two person race -- me vs. Donald Trump!... [L]et me be blunt. I can beat Hillary Clinton. Donald can't... While Donald continues with personal attacks — and vulgar profanities — I do not intend to respond, but that won't stop Donald." More from The New York Times: Above all, there is a fight against Mr. Trump, which will be waged by both Mr. Cruz and the mainstream candidates... Among the three mainstream Republican candidates, the South Carolina contest, on Feb. 20, appears to be a race against Mr. Trump and a primary-within-a-primary among establishment candidates — Mr. Bush, Mr. Rubio and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio — to win the right to ultimately challenge Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz.

On the trail

Bill Clinton stumps for his wife in Memphis, TN … Donald Trump holds a rally in Baton Rouge, LA at 8:00 pm ET … Ted Cruz is in South Carolina, hitting Rock Hill and Fort Mill … Rubio also is in the Palmetto State, campaigning in Okatie, Myrtle Beach, and Simpsonville … And Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Ben Carson all stump in South Carolina, too.

Countdown to Dem Nevada caucuses: 9 days

Countdown to GOP South Carolina primary: 9 days

Countdown to GOP Nevada caucuses: 12 days

Countdown to Dem South Carolina primary: 16 days

This article first appeared on