From the day he entered the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders has spoken of the political “revolution” he wants in America. He’s defined this revolution in myriad ways. It means taking the country back from “the billionaire class.” It means “bringing millions and millions of people into the political process, in a way that does not exist right now.” It means “the American people are prepared to stand up and say, ‘Yes, we’re gonna raise the minimum wage. Yes, we’re gonna have paid family and medical leave. Yes, we’re gonna make public colleges and universities tuition-free.’”
But a revolution is also, by definition, an overthrow of the establishment—or at least a repudiation of its policies—and no one represents the existing establishment more than the sitting president of the United States. Sanders, however, has gone out of his way not to criticize Barack Obama. Perhaps his strongest remarks came late last month during an appearance on The Young Turks, a liberal talk show. Asked whether Obama “is the establishment” or “is fighting against the establishment,” Sanders waffled, “I think probably both.... I like him, I think he’s a decent guy. But on the other hand, as Hillary Clinton reminds us, he got more money from Wall Street than she did.”
When it comes to Clinton, however, the Vermont senator is far less likely to mince words. He was so eager to pin the establishment label on her that, back in January, when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked him about the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood’s endorsements of Clinton, “You know what? Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time. Some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.” Clinton retorted that “he’s been elected to office a lot longer than I have,” and Sanders later walked back his remarks—about the organizations, but not about Clinton.
Why are Sanders and his supporters so critical of Clinton, and yet have so little to say about Obama? Several obvious reasons come to mind, and others that I can only speculate about. No matter the reason, it’s a hypocrisy for which the Sanders camp should be held accountable.
There’s little light between Clinton and Obama on policy, so much so that many on the right (and some on the left) claim that she’s running for Obama’s “third term.” Sure, she’s more hawkish than Obama, but she’s also to the left of him on other issues such as free trade and immigration. So when Sanders accuses Clinton of being too cozy with Wall Street and supporting bad trade deals, all while downplaying his disagreements with Obama on those very same issue, it feels too easy. This politically convenient balancing act undermines his claims to authenticity: Wouldn’t an “authentic” candidate tell us the whole truth? Indeed, when Clinton criticized Sanders for attacking Obama back in 2011, Sanders called it a “low blow” and said he’s been a strong ally of the president “on virtually every issue.”
Of course, Sanders isn’t running against Obama; it’s only natural that he and his supporters would save his strongest criticism for his opponent. Obama is also extremely popular among Democrats, and his overall approval rating recently hit a three-year high. But given that Sanders’s supporters are only slightly less supportive of our president than Clinton supporters—whereas a recent poll showed that 25 percent of Sanders’s supporters wouldn’t vote for Clinton in the general election—it seems reasonable to question whether other things are at work here.
Perhaps it’s a simple matter of personality: Obama is consistently cool and charismatic, while Clinton can sometimes seem guarded and uncomfortable (though she has her cool moments too). Perhaps it’s sexism: Many journalists have noted how male Sanders supporters treat Clinton and her supporters online. Perhaps it’s “liberal white guilt,” a reluctance to criticize our first black president. Of course, there is no single answer, and it varies from supporter to supporter.
What is clear, though, is that Clinton is not just embracing Obama’s policies; she is effectively embracing his philosophy of incremental change. And since Sanders’s candidacy rests on a rejection of incremental change, he and his supporters should be more conscious—and vocal—about this and other vital differences with Obama. The criticisms flung at Clinton would seem less vitriolic and hypocritical if Sanders and his supporters would acknowledge just how many of these criticisms ought to be leveled against our current president. If Sanders and his supporters really don’t approve of Obama, they should be more upfront about it. If they do approve of him, they ought to consider why they’re so opposed to Clinton. Having it both ways is not how revolutions work.