Sanders meets with ‘evenhanded’ Obama, predicts strong Iowa showing

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Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters at the White House after his meeting with President Obama. At his side is his wife, Jane. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Days before Iowa voters decide the first battle of the 2016 White House race, Sen. Bernie Sanders emerged from a rare face-to-face meeting with Barack Obama on Wednesday denying that the president was trying to tip the Democratic primary scales in Hillary Clinton’s favor.

Sanders, speaking in front of the West Wing after his 45-minute Oval Office visit, also talked up his chances in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond — but played down the odds that he would upset Clinton in the Hawkeye State the way Obama did eight years ago.

“I’m not saying we can do what Barack Obama did in 2008. I wish we could, but I don’t think we can,” the Vermont senator said. “If there is a large turnout, I think we win; if not I think we’re going to be struggling.”

Asked whether he had asked the president for his endorsement, Sanders laughed and replied: “Of course not.” He also disputed the widely held view that Obama has tried to convince Democratic voters to support Clinton.

“What the president has tried to do, what Vice President Biden has tried to do, is to be as evenhanded as they could be,” he insisted. “And I know there was some discussion the other day about a Politico interview in which he was tipping the scale towards Secretary Clinton — I don’t believe that at all.

“I think he and the vice president have tried to be fair and evenhanded in the process, and I expect they will continue to be,” he said.

Asked whether Clinton has overplayed her ties to Obama, Sanders grinned and replied: “I think the people of Iowa will make that decision in a few days.”

With enough snow on the White House grounds to recall the senator’s home state of Vermont, Sanders had arrived around 11:35, accompanied by two aides and his wife. The foursome entered the West Wing through a side door that is frequently used by powerful visitors and keeps them well out of range of media questions.

Obama’s public schedule listed a meeting with Sanders at 11:45 a.m., followed by lunch with Vice President Joe Biden at 12:30. The timing resembled that of a blind date between two wary Washingtonians, who agree to have coffee together but only with a firm time for the interlude to be over, a frequently unsuccessful effort to limit any awkwardness at “goodbye.” But White House aides later let reporters know that Sanders would likely take questions.

The meeting came days after Obama made clear in an interview with Politico that he viewed his former secretary of state, Clinton, as his natural successor, while dismissing Sanders’ surprisingly strong campaign as “the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before.”

His remarks were widely seen as Obama putting his thumb on the Democratic primary scales at a time when public opinion polls show the rough-edged Vermont senator posing an increasingly real threat to Clinton’s campaign in Iowa and leading her by double digits in New Hampshire.

“Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose,” Obama told Politico. “I think Hillary came in with the both privilege — and burden — of being perceived as the frontrunner. … You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before — that’s a disadvantage to her.”

At the same time, Obama sketched out the political logic for his meeting with Sanders. The president has long made it clear that his goal is to unify the party after the primaries to make sure a Republican does not win in November.

“Here’s my view: That whoever the nominee is, is going to need the other person’s supporters,” he told Politico.

Obama regularly meets with Hillary Clinton at the White House, and their respective staffs are in close communication, while the Sanders team has comparatively been kept at arm’s length. But the meeting on Wednesday, held at Sanders’ request, suggested an evolving view at 1600 Pennsylvania of the coming primary battle for the Democratic nomination — a newly discovered need to cultivate him.

Sanders and Obama have been in Washington together 11 years — ever since the latter took office as senator from Illinois. But the presidential candidate who proclaims himself a socialist and the president whose enemies insult him by calling him a socialist don’t appear to have much of a political relationship and even less of a personal one.

A search of the White House visitor logs turns up 43 Sanders appearances at the presidential mansion — including 17 where he is listed as “Bernard,” a name he never uses. Prior to this meeting, there was one solitary Oval Office face-to-face, on Dec. 15, 2014. His other visits seem to be more of the cattle-call variety: The annual White House Hanukkah reception, a June 2009 “congressional luau.”

Arguably the most high-profile interaction between Sanders and the administration was his “FiliBernie,” an eight-hour speech on the Senate floor ripping Obama’s December 2010 tax compromise with Republicans as a give-away to the rich at the expense of everyone else.

“We have differences of opinion,” Sanders said in the White House driveway. “But by and large over the last seven years, on major issue after major issue I have stood by his side where he has taken on unprecedented Republican obstructionism and has tried to do the right thing for the American people.”

Sanders went on to sell the 2010 speech in book form under the title “The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of our Middle Class.”

Sanders did not say whether he and the president had discussed the book in this meeting but emphasized that he owed Obama a political debt for coming to campaign for him in 2006.

“I have never forgotten that,” the senator said.

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