President Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders talked foreign policy, the economy and "a little bit of politics," Sanders said Wednesday after their first extended sit-down since the senator's presidential campaign jolted the race for the Democratic nomination.
The long-discussed meeting between Obama and his sometime critic was a moment for the president to display public neutrality in the heated and unexpectedly tight primary race to replace him — refuting suggestions that he favors Sanders' rival Hillary Clinton. For Sanders, it was a chance to show he's got some sway with a president still popular among Democrats.
Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state, and Sanders are locked in a close contest in the state of Iowa where Democrats meet next week to cast the first votes in a series of state contests aimed at lining up delegates who formally nominate a party's candidate at a summer convention. Sanders leads Clinton in the state of New Hampshire. Clinton is portraying herself as an experienced leader ready for the nation's top job while Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has struck a chord with the party's liberal activists.
Talking to reporters in the White House driveway, Sanders acknowledged he and the president have had differences, but he said he has largely backed Obama's agenda. Sanders said the president has been "even handed" in his treatment of the candidates vying to replace him, and he showed no interest in trying to strike any sharp contrast with his host.
"We have got to do a lot better to protect the middle class and working families," Sanders said. "But it's also important to remember how far we've come in the last seven years under the leadership of President Obama and Vice President Biden."
The White House said the president considered the 45-minute meeting a chance to discuss ways the two could work together, to reminisce about the thrill of campaigning in Iowa and to talk broadly about the state of the 2016 race.
The president believes Sanders' bid is good for Democrats, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
"That ability to engage Democrats and excite them and inspire them will be critical to the success of Democrats up and down the ballot, whether Senator Sanders is the nominee or not," Earnest said.
But the White House isn't suggesting Obama and Sanders are kindred spirits, or even close political allies. White House officials says the men lack much of a personal relationship and have markedly different approaches to politics. The president this week declared bluntly he doesn't see Sanders' upstart campaign as a reboot of his own battle against Clinton in 2008. Obama allies bristle at comparisons between Sanders and the president.
Their reaction is reminder that even as Obama watches the nomination battle from a distance in Washington, he is personally tied to the outcome. Obama remains focused on ensuring a Democrat wins the White House and on protecting his legacy. Increasingly, it appears, he sees Clinton as his best hope.
With the Iowa caucuses just days away, Obama recently showered praise on Clinton in an interview and threw some cold water on the Sanders. The president cast Clinton as ready to go on Day One, and Sanders as a compelling political star, but also a "bright, shiny object" in need of some more scrutiny.
Sanders said Wednesday he didn't see the interview as a dig. He said he believed the president and the vice president have been "fair and even handed."
"And I expect they will continue to be that way," he said.
Sanders said with a laugh that he didn't directly ask for Obama's endorsement. He did ask for an update on the fight against Islamic extremism and the effort to warm relations with Iran, he said.