Independent Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders just became the most recent hopeful to release an ad featuring former President Barack Obama despite Obama’s pledge not to endorse anyone, and Sanders’ spot is deceptively edited.
Throughout the 2020 primary, Democrats have gone to great lengths to cast themselves as the rightful heir to Barack Obama. Pete Buttigieg appeared to channel the former president on stage, while Mike Bloomberg ran an ad suggesting the pair forged a tight bond.
Former vice president Joe Biden has consistently played up his relationship with his old boss. “If you want a nominee who’s a Democrat—a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat—join us,” Biden told supporters on Tuesday night.
Bernie Sanders, however, has been an exception. While the race’s moderates, now in line behind Biden, look longingly on the Obama era, the leading progressive has called for a broader political revolution, an overhaul to a system that Obama is a part of. But after Biden surged past him on Super Tuesday with a series of surprise victories, Sanders signaled that he may also play up his links to Obama. The Sanders campaign on Wednesday released a new ad featuring images of the two men interacting, along with audio taken in part from a January 2016 interview in which Obama praises the progressive.
Bernie was basically the only candidate who didn’t run an Obama is my bff ad. After getting wiped out in the South, he releases this ad the next day. (in one SC ad, he had a shot of them together but it wasn’t like this) pic.twitter.com/JNgtFb0q26
— Alex Thompson (@AlxThomp) March 4, 2020
“Bernie is somebody who has the virtue of saying exactly what he believes, and great authenticity, great passion, and is fearless,” Obama says in the voiceover, taken from the Politico interview. Another audio clip comes from Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention in 2016, in which he lauded Sanders as he called for the party to unify behind the senator’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. “I think people are ready for a call to action,” Obama said. “They want honest leadership who cares about them. They want somebody who’s gonna fight for them. And they will find it in Bernie.”
“That’s right, feel the Bern!” Obama said.
Though Obama indeed said these things about Sanders, the ad is somewhat misleading. The audio is cut together to sound like an endorsement—but Obama has made clear he does not want to offer any public support for a candidate in the primary, saving his endorsement for the general against Donald Trump. But even if he were to back a candidate, it seems more likely he’d take Biden over Sanders. Politico reported in November that Obama had privately fretted over Sanders’ ascendance, and suggested he may “speak up to stop him” if he were to run away with the race. (Obama denied the report.)
For his part, Sanders had been seen as one of the president’s most prominent skeptics on the left. Though he worked with Obama and sometimes praised his administration’s work, he questioned his progressive bona fides and suggested the country needed a “course correction” that went far beyond what Obama and Biden had done. According to the Atlantic, Sanders’ private frustrations with Obama may have been even more extensive than he let on; in February, the magazine reported that Sanders had once considered mounting a 2012 primary challenge to Obama, and only backed down from his plan after two conversations with then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. While Sanders and his camp have denied the claims, the fact remains that Sanders and Obama weren’t exactly the close allies the new ad spot makes them out to be. “It’s not to say they had a bad relationship when Obama got to the White House,” a former Obama staffer told the Atlantic. “It’s just that they didn’t have a relationship.”
Sanders’ audacious attempt to suggest they did may reflect a realization on his campaign’s part; though progressives tend to have a more mixed view of Obama’s legacy, the former president remains overwhelmingly popular among Democrats as a whole, and especially the black voters who make up the heart of the party. Sanders may be doing better with minority voters now than he did in 2016, but Super Tuesday suggested he’s going to need to broaden his coalition—and quick!—to win the nomination. Though Sanders won California, the Super Tuesday state with the most delegates at stake, Biden rode his South Carolina momentum to retake frontrunner status, even without the senator’s ground game and resources in some of the states at play. Trying to tie himself to Obama, then, could be a way for Sanders to build goodwill with voters who revere the former president.
How effective that strategy proves depends on two factors: How convincing voters find it, and how long Sanders can stick to it. Sanders may not have been the anti-Obama zealot Biden has sought to characterize him as, but it’s going to be hard for him to forge a stronger link with the ex-president than his former number two. What’s more, it’s not clear how much Sanders would even want the mantle of Obama’s legacy; though Obama rode a revolutionary wave to the White House more than a decade ago now, he now sits atop the Democratic establishment Sanders is running to upend. Biden, like some of the now-former 2020 hopefuls, has talked, for better or worse, about restoring Obama’s accomplishments and building on them. Sanders hasn’t exactly dismissed those accomplishments, but he and many of his most enthusiastic supporters have made clear they see simply returning to Obama-era policies as insufficient. Cutting together praise from the former president could be an olive branch to a part of the Democratic party he may not have known he needed until Tuesday—but it could also come across as inauthentic, given his previous criticisms.