The 48 hours since Bernie Sanders rolled to an across-the-board victory in the Nevada caucuses have been filled with skittish Democratic establishment types coming to this realization: Not only is stopping the Vermont democratic socialist going to be very difficult, the time may have already passed when it was even possible.
“If no one drops out by Super Tuesday, is it even possible to stop Bernie Sanders?” NBC’s Chuck Todd asked former Obama White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer on Sunday. “I do not believe it is,” responded Pfeiffer.
Pfeiffer is very likely right. But if there is a way to stop – or at least slow – Sanders, most Democratic insiders are convinced it’s this: Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama get behind an alternative candidate to the Vermont senator. Not only that, but the Obamas make their endorsements soon – like pre-Super Tuesday – and they urge all of the other candidates to get out of the race ASAP.
Why might this work? Because the Obamas are hugely popular figures among Democrats – especially African-Americans, who would be the first building block of any candidate trying to build a coalition to beat Sanders. Obama left office in early 2017 with 6 in 10 Americans approving of the job he did as president, and those numbers have only improved since – as people forget what they didn’t like about his presidency and remember the good times.
The problem for the anti-Sanders forces in the party? There’s zero evidence to suggest that either Obama is interested in wading into the current morass in order to keep the nomination from Sanders.
Last fall, in a talk in front of a well-heeled group of liberal donors in Washington, DC, the former president was dismissive of the idea that contested primaries were a bad thing for the party. “To those who get stressed about robust primaries,” said Obama, adding: “I just have to remind you: I had a very robust primary.”
The former president also praised the field as “very accomplished, very serious, and passionate, and smart people who have a history of public service, and whoever emerges from the primary process, I will work my tail off to make sure they are the next president.”
Which doesn’t exactly sound like a guy who is itching to throw himself into the middle of a primary fight, right?
Of his relationship with Obama, Sanders recently told CNN:
“I’m not going to tell you that he and I are best friends, but we’re friends. And I have talked to him on and off for the last many years, was sitting down alone with him in the Oval Office on more than one occasion. Talked to him on the telephone every now and then. He is an icon, clearly, in the Democratic Party, and I have absolute confidence that he will play a vigorous, vigorous role.”
Need more evidence of the unlikeliness of Obama coming off the sidelines? Following a tweet last month from a Fox Business reporter claiming that the former president was worried about the prospect of a Sanders nomination and might well speak out to stop it, forces inside Obamaworld immediately shot down the idea.
Look at it from the Obamas’ perspective. They are beloved within the Democratic Party. The former president is writing his memoir of his time in office. They have a massive production deal with Netflix. Given all of that, why wade into a deeply contentious primary fight where you a) know that getting involved is going to piss off a lot of people who presently like you and b) there is no guarantee, at all, that endorsing someone other than Sanders will actually keep the Vermont senator from being the nominee?
On that last point, it’s worth considering that while the Obamas retain major sway within the Democratic Party, there is also the potential for a “Stop Bernie” effort led by them to backfire. Sanders has positioned himself both in this race and more broadly in his political career as someone who has always been fighting the political establishment. If that establishment – panicked about the prospect of Sanders winning – seems to be aligning itself against him, it could very well stiffen the support for him, making it that much harder for any other candidate to seriously challenge him for the nomination.
In short: The upside for Obama of endorsing someone other than Sanders isn’t very high. And the downside is both more likely and pretty dang low.
So if you are a Democrat waiting for the Obamas to save you from Sanders, settle in. You may be waiting for a long time. Like, forever.