By Jordan Fabian - 01/27/16 01:24 PM EST
President Obama isn’t trying to tip the scales in favor of Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSanders aide: We're trying to open party to 'new blood' Poll: Most voters think Trump should release tax returns Poll: Clinton, Trump disliked by majority of Americans MORE in the Democratic presidential race, Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders aide: We're trying to open party to 'new blood' Sanders to Larry David: 'I want you to keep your job' Clinton allies blame Bernie for bad polls MORE said Wednesday following a meeting at the White House.
It was the Vermont senator’s first one-on-one meeting with Obama since emerging as a force in the Democratic presidential primary, and came days after Obama came close to endorsing Clinton in an interview, saying she would be more ready to be president on her first day in office than anyone who had not previously served as vice president.
The senator said Obama has struck an “even-handed” stance towards the candidates running to replace him.
“There was some discussion the other day about a Politico interview where he was tipping the scales towards Secretary Clinton. I don’t believe that at all,” the Vermont senator told reporters on the West Wing driveway after the 45-minute meeting.
Sanders conceded he has clashed with the president in the past, but he lauded the Obama administration’s efforts to dig the country out of the recession.
“We have got to do a lot better to protect the middle class and working families,” he said. “But it is also important to remember how far we have come in the last seven years under the leadership of President Obama and Vice President Biden.”
And Sanders struck a contrast with Clinton, noting both Obama and he initially opposed the war in Iraq.
“I voted against the war in Iraq and that's a major point of difference between Secretary Clinton and myself,” he said. “We both received the same information and we came to a different conclusion.”
The rare meeting, which has been in the works since last month, is a recognition of Sanders’ strength. It came just days before the Iowa caucuses, where polls show he is running neck-and-neck with Clinton.
Sanders appeared bullish about his chances in the Hawkeye State, but also downplayed expectations he would pull off a stunning upset of Clinton there like Obama did eight years ago.
“We’re feeling really good about where we are,” he said. “Now, I'm not saying we could do what Barack ObamaBarack ObamaClinton allies blame Bernie for bad polls Bill Press: Bernie is not a threat John Feehery: GOP: Listen to Reince MORE did in 2008. I wish we could but I don't think we can. But if there is a large turnout, I think we win.”
Clinton and Sanders have both been praising Obama on the campaign trail as they hope to attract his supporters — particularly ahead of the Feb. 27 South Carolina primary, where African-Americans will be an important voting bloc.
The meeting was also a chance for Obama to demonstrate he’s not officially choosing sides in the race to succeed him.
Sanders said he discussed domestic issues, foreign policy and “a little bit of politics” with Obama, but he declined to ask for his endorsement.
“The president has not issued an endorsement in the race,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said immediately after the meeting. “At this point he doesn't plan to.”
Earnest argued that an early endorsement from the president would hurt — and not help —the Democrats keep control of the White House.
But that didn’t stop reporters from peppering him with questions about Obama’s leanings in the race.
“Looks like you're all feeling the Bern,” Earnest joked after Sanders’ press scrum, which was attended by more than two dozen reporters and photographers.
Clinton, who spent four years as Obama’s secretary of State, is widely viewed as his preferred candidate in the Democratic race.
She has picked up endorsements from four of the president’s cabinet members and several senior Obama aides have gone to work for Clinton’s campaign. The president has met multiple times behind closed doors with Clinton, most recently last month.
By contrast, Sanders has only had one one-on-one meeting, in December 2014, with Obama during his presidency.
The president heaped praise on his former top diplomat in an interview with Politico. Obama also lauded Sanders for energizing the Democratic base with his focus on income inequality. But he added a qualifier, saying the liberal firebrand has enjoyed the benefit “just letting loose” because he entered the race as a long-shot candidate.
He referred to Sanders as a “bright, shiny object” for voters and suggested the more experienced Clinton is best equipped to protect his legacy.
“The longer you go in the process, the more you’re going to have to pass a series of hurdles that the voters are going to put in front of you, because the one thing everybody understands is that [with] this job right here, you don’t have the luxury of just focusing on one thing,” he said.
Sanders and Obama see eye-to-eye on issues such as same-sex marriage and climate change. But the two have openly clashed in the past.
Just one day before their meeting, Sanders announced he is formally blocking Obama’s nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration over his ties to the pharmaceutical industry.
He also suggested the 2012 presidential race would benefit from a primary candidate challenging Obama from the left.
“If a progressive Democrat were to run, I think it would enliven the debate,” he said during a 2011 interview on WNYC Radio.
Five years later, Sanders’ tune is different.
“In 2008, I did my best to see that he would be elected president, campaigned hard for him, as I did in 2012,” he told reporters Wednesday.
Jesse Byrnes contributed to this story.
This story was updated at 3:36 p.m.