President Obama's Implicit Endorsement of Hillary Clinton

January 25th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

Officially, President Barack Obama hasn't endorsed a candidate in the 2016 presidential race — declining to publicly support one potential nominee over the other.

Unofficially, Obama appears to favor Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton — a theory that gained credibility on Monday following the release of an in depth interview with the President for Politico. In the interview, Obama offered an implicit endorsement of Clinton that represented a break from his official neutrality on the election.


The president contrasted the candidates, describing Sanders as "somebody who was a senator and served on the Veterans' Committee and got bills done" and Clinton as a "tough" politician who recognizes 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." At the same time, Clinton "is really idealistic and progressive," Obama said.

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The implied message is that Clinton is the full package. She's both idealistic and pragmatic, tried and tested for the presidency. While Sanders has effectively garnered a sizeable share of Democratic support through his repeated emphasis on big, systemic issues — holding Wall Street accountable, pushing for a single-payer health care system — his focus is too narrow and practically untenable. By contrast, Clinton promises and delivers.


"I think Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete longshot and just letting loose," Obama said. "I think Hillary came in with the — both privilege and burden of being perceived as the frontrunner. And, as a consequence, you know, where they stood at the beginning probably helps to explain why the language sometimes is different."

But Obama's characterization of Sanders has drawn criticism. The fact that he denied that there were clear parallels between his 2008 campaign and Sanders' current run, for example, provoked a response from one of Sanders' top aides, senior campaign adviser Larry Cohen.

"I think that’s the parallel to [Obama's] own journey eight years ago, and I was actually supporting him then, that he offered hope," Cohen told CNN. "And I think Bernie and actually all of the Democratic candidates are about a positive vision of the future. Bernie’s is about change, not just continuity in the similar way that then-Sen. Obama was talking about change."

Timing matters.

That Obama weighed in on the presidential election at this decidedly pivotal moment — one week before the Iowa caucuses — is no inconsequential matter. The most recent Iowa poll from CNN/ORC showed Sanders in the lead by eight points.

The December version of the same poll had Clinton ahead by 18 points. In other words, it is unclear where voters in Iowa stand, which is not the position that most assumed Clinton would be in at this stage in the election season, especially with Sanders consistently leading in New Hampshire.


In August 2015, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama "wouldn’t rule out the possibility of an endorsement in the Democratic primary" — but that he'd let voters decide on a nominee before throwing in his two cents. Of course, the president hasn't broken that promise; he hasn't explicitly endorsed Clinton, but his apparent preference for the candidate over Sanders came across in the article, subtly but surely.

"[L]ook, I've gotten to know Hillary really well, and she is a good, smart, tough person who cares deeply about this country, and she has been in the public eye for a long time and in a culture in which new is always better," Obama said. "And, you know, you're always looking at the bright, shiny object that people don't, haven't seen before. That's a disadvantage to her. Bernie is somebody who — although I don't know as well because he wasn't, obviously, in my administration, has the virtue of saying exactly what he believes, and great authenticity, great passion, and is fearless."

But the "relevant contrast," Obama said, is not between the leading Democratic candidates, per se. It's "between Bernie and Hillary and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and the vision that they're portraying for the country." There's subtext here: Sanders' appeal make sense — he's the "bright, shiny object" that represents the Democratic party's idealized vision of itself — but even the brightest and shiniest objects fade without the means to achieve their proposed goals.

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The gap between the candidates is "as wide as I've ever seen," Obama said. "You know, you think about it."