Obama and Sanders joke at a meeting at the White House in 2010.

Obama and Sanders joke at a meeting at the White House in 2010. Pete Souza/White House file photo

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The Rocky Obama-Sanders Relationship

The president and the runner-up to replace him will meet Thursday with a long, rough history between them.

Don’t ex­pect a lot of warmth when Pres­id­ent Obama sits down Thursday at the White House with Sen. Bernie Sanders. This is not a re­union of polit­ic­al al­lies or per­son­al friends or fel­low sen­at­ors who bon­ded when they served to­geth­er. In­stead, the agenda will be all busi­ness as the pres­id­ent does his du­ties as lead­er of the Demo­crat­ic Party, and Sanders takes the op­por­tun­ity to lick his wounds, air his griev­ances, and be­gin to come to grips with his de­feat at the hands of former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Both at the White House and in the Sanders camp, there is too much his­tory for either side to pre­tend oth­er­wise. Aides to Obama well re­mem­ber the sen­at­or’s loud op­pos­i­tion to the pres­id­ent’s po­s­i­tions on single-pay­er health re­form, So­cial Se­cur­ity re­form, Wall Street reg­u­la­tion, the prop­er pace to end two wars—even Sanders’s ef­fort to block the pres­id­ent’s ap­pointee to be a com­mis­sion­er of the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion be­cause of ties to the phar­ma­ceut­ic­al in­dustry.

They re­mem­ber his lengthy speech on the Sen­ate floor in Decem­ber 2010 con­demning the tax-cut deal between the White House and Re­pub­lic­ans. And they es­pe­cially re­mem­ber his open talk in 2011 of the need to have a true pro­gress­ive run against Obama in the Demo­crat­ic primar­ies in 2012. “If a pro­gress­ive Demo­crat wants to run, I think it would en­liven the de­bate, raise some is­sues, and people have a right to do that,” he said in March 2011. Four months later, on a ra­dio pro­gram, Sanders spoke of the “mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans who are deeply dis­ap­poin­ted in the pres­id­ent, who be­lieve that, with re­gard to So­cial Se­cur­ity and a num­ber of oth­er is­sues, he said one thing as a can­did­ate and is do­ing something very much else as a pres­id­ent, who can­not be­lieve how weak he has been … in ne­go­ti­at­ing with Re­pub­licans.”

They also took note at the White House when the Sanders cam­paign gave great prom­in­ence to one of the most acerbic crit­ics, Ivy League pro­fess­or Cor­nel West, who labeled Obama “a Rock­e­feller Re­pub­lic­an in black­face” in a Novem­ber 2012 in­ter­view with Demo­cracy Now and who told Truth­dig in May 2011 that Obama was “a black mas­cot of Wall Street ol­ig­archs and a black pup­pet of cor­por­ate plu­to­crats.”

When Na­tion­al Journ­al in­cluded a crit­ic­al com­ment from Sanders in a story in 2012, then-White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney fired off an angry email to the of­fend­ing re­port­er: “You’re quot­ing Bernie Sanders??? BERNIE SANDERS??” Car­ney’s mes­sage was clear—we don’t take Sanders ser­i­ously at the White House and you shouldn’t either in your re­port­ing. It was a mes­sage that Car­ney not so subtly de­livered again after he left the White House and was quoted widely as stat­ing that the pres­id­ent favored Clin­ton in her match against Sanders.

In the Sanders camp, that com­ment by Car­ney—and the wink­ing as­sent of the White House—rankled. But not as much as the com­ment by the pres­id­ent him­self in Janu­ary. In an in­ter­view with Glenn Thrush of Politico, Obama sought to come off as even-handed in as­sess­ing the two Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates. But there was no mask­ing his pref­er­ence for Clin­ton when he force­fully chal­lenged the no­tion that his cam­paign in 2008 was a mod­el for Sanders in 2016. “No, no,” said Obama, adding, “I don’t think that’s true.”

Obama was at his most dis­missive of Sanders in that in­ter­view when he voiced sym­pathy for Clin­ton’s chal­lenges as a front-run­ner and said of Sanders, “You’re al­ways look­ing at the bright, shiny ob­ject that people haven’t seen be­fore—that’s a dis­ad­vant­age to her.”

Nor did re­la­tions warm dur­ing the cam­paign. Those around Obama un­der­stand that Demo­crats can­not just prom­ise to provide a third Obama term. But they chafed at some of Sanders’s at­tempts to break sharply with the pres­id­ent’s re­cord. In a Feb­ru­ary in­ter­view on MS­N­BC, Sanders sug­ges­ted that Obama had not dis­played suf­fi­cient pres­id­en­tial lead­er­ship to close the gap between Wash­ing­ton and the Amer­ic­an people. Clin­ton’s spokes­man, Bri­an Fal­lon, quickly tweeted, “The idea of Bernie Sanders, who has little to show for his 25 years in Con­gress, giv­ing lead­er­ship lec­tures to Pres­id­ent Obama is ab­surd.”

Earli­er in the cam­paign, Sanders drew the at­ten­tion of the White House when he said his pres­id­ency could rep­res­ent a “course cor­rec­tion” from the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Des­pite the ten­sion just be­neath the sur­face, both sides have pub­licly cel­eb­rated what they call a friend­ship as the pres­id­ent has of­fi­cially re­mained neut­ral and Sanders has tried to prom­ise more pro­gress­ive policies without ali­en­at­ing the in­cum­bent. “Barack Obama is a friend of mine,” Sanders said on ABC’s This Week in Novem­ber. “I think he’s been a very strong pres­id­ent and has taken this coun­try in an ex­traordin­ar­ily dif­fi­cult mo­ment in his­tory in a very pos­it­ive way.”

Thursday, at a dif­fi­cult mo­ment in Sanders’s polit­ic­al ca­reer, the two men have a chance to re­fresh that re­la­tion­ship and test how re­cept­ive the sen­at­or is to tough ad­vice from his “friend.”