There were only two Democrats on the debate stage in Milwaukee on Thursday night, but they should have brought a third podium for President Obama.
Coming back from a landslide defeat in the New Hampshire primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doggedly criticized Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on areas where he'd split with Obama while duct-taping herself to the President's legacy on issues as varied as foreign policy, health care and Wall Street.
Sanders, for his part, did his best to hold his ground, justifying his criticism of the President and presenting himself as a change agent while pointing out Clinton's own differences with Obama.
Their heated exchanges over Obama's legacy reflected how the President has become a specter in the Democratic primary contest. Hours before the PBS Newshour debate on Thursday, Sanders suggested in an interview with MSNBC that Obama had failed to bridge the “huge gap between Congress and the American people,” saying that the U.S. needs a “political revolution” to bring people into the process.
Clinton unloaded on Sanders for his comments. “Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test,” Clinton said in the evening debate, with millions of Americans tuned in. “It is the kind of criticism that we've heard from Senator Sanders about our President I expect from Republicans.”
“Madame Secretary, that is a low blow,” Sanders shot back. “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”
In ways sizable and subtle, Clinton sought on Thursday to show she was the faithful heir of the President’s legacy, repeating his name more than 15 times throughout the debate. The Democratic Party as a whole, while largely approving of the President's performance, has shown some fissures in recent years as liberals have expressed dissatisfaction with growing levels of income inequality and the influence of money on politics.
Some liberals are disappointed with the Obama White House and support Sanders in the hopes that he will move the party further to the left. And Sanders showed throughout Thursday's contest that he was more than willing to criticize the President.
At one point, Clinton targeted Sanders' words in 2011 that millions of Americans believed that Obama had been "weak" and there was "disappointment" among liberals, misattributing those words to Sanders' own sentiments. "Those kinds of personal assessments and charges are ones that I find particularly troubling," Clinton said to Sanders.
“You know what? Last I heard we lived in a democratic society. Last I heard, a United States Senator had the right to disagree with the President,” Sanders shot back. “So I have voiced criticisms. You're right. Maybe you haven't. I have.”
Sanders distanced himself from the President on his immigrant-deportation policy during the debate. "I disagree with his recent deportation policies. And I would not support those," Sanders said. The Vermont Senator went on to attack Clinton for her support of Obama's policy to send back refugee children from Honduras and Central America trying to enter the U.S. in 2014.
Clinton defended herself by saying that Obama had designed the policy to discourage Central American parents from sending children on a dangerous cross-border journey. "The fact is that there was a great effort made by the Obama Administration and others to really send a clear message, because we knew that so many of these children were being abused, being treated terribly while they tried to get to our border," Clinton said.
The former Secretary of State pointedly refused to say that race relations had worsened under Obama, saying that problems that already existed between blacks and police forces have been brought to the national attention due to cell phones. But when Sanders was asked whether race relations would improve under his presidency after the Obama years, he responded forcefully. "Absolutely," he said.
Clinton criticized Sanders for saying in 2011 that Obama have a primary challenger. "He came to Vermont to campaign for me when he was a Senator," Sanders retorted.
Clinton used Obama as a shield against Sanders’ attacks for her Wall Street donations. When Sanders said that Clinton’s super PAC Priorities USA Action had taken $25 million in donations and $15 million from Wall Street, Clinton said that the super PAC “was set up to support President Obama” and that Obama had also taken donations from major financial institutions. Obama, Clinton said, had not been influenced by big donors, and she wouldn't be either.
“I debated then Senator Obama numerous times on stages like this, and he was the recipient of the largest number of Wall Street donations of anybody running on the Democratic side ever,” Clinton said.
Sanders, meanwhile, implicitly distanced himself from the President, refusing to relent. “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people. People aren't dumb. Why in God's name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it; they want to throw money around,” Sanders said.
On health care, Clinton suggested that Sanders would imperil a central plank of Obama’s presidency, the Affordable Care Act, by opening a contentious debate about a single-payer option that would remove private health insurers from the equation. In her criticism of Sanders, she reminded the audience of her own fight for comprehensive health care in the early 1990s. “You know, before it was called Obamacare, it was called Hillarycare,” she said.
"Why I am a staunch supporter of President Obama's principal accomplishment — namely the Affordable Care Act — is because I know how hard it was to get that done," Clinton added.
When the debate moved into foreign policy in the second hour, both Clinton and Sanders argued the points of Obama's policy, with Sanders implicitly suggesting distance from Obama on Libya, where Clinton urged for intervention. Sanders also pointed out that Clinton disagreed with Obama on the use of a no-fly zone over Syria. "For a start, the Secretary and I disagree — and I think the President does not agree with her — in terms of the concept of a no-fly zone in Syria," Sanders said.
For months, Clinton has portrayed herself as Obama's rightful heir, telling the story over and over in stump speeches from New Hampshire to Iowa and beyond of his request that she serve as his Secretary of State despite the hotly contested 2008 primary campaign.
The debate, which aired two days after the New Hampshire primary that Sanders won by an overwhelming margin, reflected the culmination of weeks of jabbing between the candidates over Obama.
When the candidates left the stage, Clinton’s top aides continued to push their candidate’s message.
“There is some skepticism about why he has to go out of his way, as he did last night on NBC, to criticize President Obama,” said Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. “Does it surprise me a little bit that he continues to throw elbows at the President. Yeah. It surprises me.”
"I think that was just disrespectful and a little presumptuous,” said the Clinton campaign pollster Joel Benenson of Sanders’ criticism of Obama.
A super PAC supporting Clinton, Correct the Record, blasted out a video of Sanders saying, “There are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the President.”
Sanders and Clinton will turn next to campaigning in Nevada and South Carolina, where Obama is widely admired by black voters who helped boost him to the nomination in 2008.
The President, it appears, is not leaving the campaign trail anytime soon.
— With additional reporting by Michael Scherer