President Obama is emerging as a staunch defender of Hillary Clinton in an increasingly contentious Democratic presidential primary.
Obama is officially neutral in the race between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and he and his aides have been painstakingly careful to show they’re not trying to tip the scales in favor of Clinton.
But the White House has defended Clinton against attacks from Sanders, and Obama has brushed aside concerns about Clinton’s vulnerabilities — including an FBI investigation into her use of a private email server as secretary of State.
The president’s involvement offers obvious benefits to Clinton.
Obama remains the most popular figure in the Democratic Party and any praise or defense of her, even if it’s implicit, could give Clinton a crucial boost as she looks to wrap up the Democratic nomination.
Both Sanders and Clinton have heaped praise on Obama as they seek to win over African-Americans, Hispanics, young voters and other members of the president’s coalition.
Almost nine in 10 Democratic voters approve of the president’s job performance, according to a late March Monmouth University poll. His overall approval rating is at 50 percent or higher in most recent surveys.
Obama isn’t officially campaigning yet. The White House says the president will really hit the trail in the months ahead, once it’s clear who the party nominee is.
Sanders is vowing to stay in the race all way until the Democratic convention in late July, however, which could keep Obama on the sidelines.
“There’s no way that [Obama] and his team are going to be able to maneuver to isolate Sanders,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who is backing Clinton. “They are going to have to let this play out. I think they’re going to do what they can, given that dynamic, to help her out wherever possible.”
Overall, Obama and his aides have been careful to pick their spots in the race.
Still, any time the White House comments on the Democratic race, it gets noticed.
The latest example came Thursday, when White House spokesman Eric Schultz knocked down Sanders’s argument that Clinton is not “qualified” to serve as president.
“The president has said that Secretary Clinton comes into this race with more experience than any other non-vice president in recent campaign history,” Schultz told reporters aboard Air Force One.
One day later, Sanders reversed course.
“Of course” Clinton is qualified to serve as president, the Vermont senator said on NBC’s “Today” show.
Schultz echoed Obama’s most extensive comments on Clinton and Sanders, made in a January Politico podcast, in which he suggested that Clinton best understands what it takes to occupy the Oval Office.
“What Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics,” he said.
He referred to Sanders as a “bright, shiny object” for voters and suggested Clinton is best equipped to protect his legacy.
Sanders has gained momentum with a string of recent primary wins, most recently in Wisconsin. But the victories have done little to cut into Clinton’s delegate lead and block her path to the nomination.
Obama acknowledged as much in a closed-door fundraiser in Austin last month, telling donors that Sanders’s campaign is nearing its end point and the time is approaching to rally around Clinton, according to The New York Times.
The president has also sought to reassure Democrats about the former first lady’s perceived weaknesses, including a lack of authenticity and her ability to excite the base on the same scale as Sanders.
Obama reportedly called authenticity an overrated political virtue in his conversation with donors in Austin.
At a fundraiser for congressional Democrats in Los Angeles on Thursday, Obama did not specifically mention Clinton or Sanders. But he said he talks to supporters who tell him they’ll miss him and are “not that excited” about this election.
Obama then took on that attitude in comments that could be seen as favoring Clinton, who has won more votes but not attracted the kind of enthusiasm evident at Sanders events.
“We cannot be complacent and we cannot be cynical, because the stakes are too high,” Obama said. “I hope all of you are fired up and ready to go, because I am.”
Obama has developed close ties to Clinton. Despite their vicious primary race in 2008, Clinton served four years in Obama’s administration, during which time they formed a mutual respect for each other. Several former Obama White House staffers serve in top roles on the Clinton campaign.
Clinton has campaigned as a protector of Obama’s legacy, while Sanders has said Obama’s signature healthcare law did not go far enough and that he could have done more to address income inequality.
The Vermont Independent has clashed with Obama. In 2010, he railed against an Obama tax-cut package in a lengthy floor speech that become known as the “Filibernie” and he suggested Obama could use a primary challenge from the left in 2012.
While Sanders recently said he has a “friendly relationship” with the president, he conceded that Clinton is probably closer to Obama than he is.
“Is he closer to Hillary Clinton? I suspect,” he told film director Spike Lee in an interview. “She was his secretary of State for four years.”
Obama has also gone out of his way to praise Sanders. In the Politico interview, the president said he’s been successful in energizing voters. He met with Sanders in the Oval Office for 45 minutes in January, a recognition of his campaign’s strength.
Clinton’s last known meeting with Obama happened in December, a private lunch at the White House.
There are dangers for the president if he is too heavy-handed trying to influence the race, strategists say.
“The president risks alienating Sanders supporters,” said Bannon. “It will ruin his standing with the people who support Bernie Sanders and there are a lot of them”
Obama appears to be aware of his role as the party’s uniter in chief.
The president got in the middle of this week’s dispute between Clinton and Sanders over whether either is qualified for the nation’s highest office.
He said divisions among Democrats are “more about means, less about ends.” Without naming either candidate, he said the party must beware of the type of bitter campaign on the Republican side.
“The cleavages inside the Democratic Party are not comparable to what we’re seeing in the Republican Party right now,” he said. “The thing that Democrats have to guard against is going in the direction that the Republicans are much further along on.”