Bernie Sanders began meeting with President Obama and other leading Democrats in Washington on Thursday, determined to exit the presidential race on his own terms, even as he was being increasingly nudged to focus on party unity.
The senator from Vermont came to the White House around 11 a.m. for a meeting with Obama and had an early afternoon get-together planned on Capitol Hill with Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who has sought to play the role of peace broker at the end of a contentious nominating contest between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Obama and Sanders smiled and chatted as they walked along the White House colonnade Thursday, as a throng of White House reporters recorded the moment. They then walked into the Oval Office to have their private meeting.
White House officials said the meeting was not aimed at pressuring the senator to concede the race, but rather to discuss Sanders’s priorities and how to best incorporate them into the broader Democratic Party agenda.
“This is not a meeting about the logistics of the path forward, but about the policies and issues the party should be focused on moving forward,” said White House communications director Jennifer Psaki.
The president and Sanders have had five conversations since January, according to White House officials, two of which have been in person.
Before flying back home Thursday night to Burlington, Vt., Sanders plans to stage the kind of large-scale rally that has become a signature of his campaign, this one at RFK Stadium in the District.
The rally comes four days ahead of the Democratic primary in the District, the final contest on the long and grueling Democratic calendar. Twenty delegates are in play, but there is little at stake following Clinton’s clinching of the nomination this week, punctuated by her decisive win Tuesday in California, the nation’s most populous state.
Sanders has vowed to stay in the race through the Democratic convention in July, in a last-ditch bid to win the nomination by flipping the allegiance of hundreds of superdelegates who have already announced support for Clinton. A growing number of Sanders’s supporters have acknowledged the scenario is far-fetched.
Increasingly, Sanders’s aim seems to be using the leverage that he and his millions of loyal followers now have to assure his campaign agenda — anchored around issues of income and wealth inequality — has a central place in the Democratic Party’s platform and general-election strategy.
At the top of Sanders’s wish list as he comes to Washington: a $15 federal minimum wage, stricter financial regulations on Wall Street banks, bolstered paid family and medical leave policies, and making college accessible and a public education benefit. Trade, in particular, is likely to be a contentious point as Sanders makes the rounds in Washington since many party leaders, and Clinton, do not share his more left-of-center views. But Sanders believes his campaign has pushed the debate leftward on that front.
Sanders’s aides also say seeing the party take a tougher position on energy — against fracking and for a carbon tax — is important to him and another reason why he remains far from ready to rally behind Clinton’s candidacy.
The meetings with Obama and Reid come as a growing number of Democratic elders are nudging Sanders, with waning subtlety, to help unify the party around Clinton as she prepares for a nasty and unpredictable fall campaign against Republican real estate mogul Donald Trump.
Sanders’s 11:15 a.m. meeting Thursday with President Obama was arranged at the senator’s request, according to the White House.
In an interview Wednesday taped for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” which will air in full Thursday night, Obama praised Sanders but also made it clear his deliberations over dropping out of the race must end fairly soon. The president described the contested primary as “healthy,” adding he understood why it would take someone time to relinquish their presidential hopes.
“And I thought Bernie Sanders brought enormous energy, and his new ideas and he pushed the party and challenged them,” the president said. “I thought it made Hillary a better candidate. I think she is whip-smart. She is tough, and she deeply cares about working people and putting kids through school and making sure we’re growing our economy, and so my hope is that over the next couple of weeks, we’re able to pull things together.”
He noted that the attacks launched during a primary can leave everyone feeling “a little ouchy.”
“So there’s a natural process of everybody recognizing that this is not about any individual, but this is about the country and the direction we want to take it,” he said.
Still, speaking at a fundraiser later Wednesday evening, Obama made it clear he sees the race for the Democratic nomination as over. “Now we just ended, or sort of ended, our primary season,” prompting laughter from the audience.
Reid has said that both Sanders and Clinton will have to play a role in forging Democratic unity moving forward.
“It’s not a one-way street. They’re both going to have to, in effect, compromise,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday.
Sanders has not spoken to the press since Tuesday afternoon, prior to results being posted in the six primary states. Most notable in his interactions with voters, both in California and later with volunteers in Vermont, has been what has gone unsaid: He has not taken shots at Clinton or even mentioned her, save for a brief crack Tuesday about whether she received any votes in California.
Sanders lost four of the six primaries and caucuses on the calendar on Tuesday, including the two largest, New Jersey and California. He had hoped to make a real statement in California by beating Clinton by a sizable margin.
According to people close to him, battling on was an unsurprising but deeply personal decision made by Sanders Tuesday at his hotel in Los Angeles as the results came in. In spite of the disappointing results and Clinton’s victory in California and three other states, Sanders remains convinced that the gains he has made and the movement he has led should not be quickly discarded in the name of party unity.
Sanders flew home on Wednesday to Burlington, the city where the self-described democratic socialist launched his political career and served as mayor prior to winning a seat in Congress.
After stepping off his campaign’s chartered flight from Los Angeles, the 74-year-old senator was greeted by a small crowd of cheering supporters. Sanders raised his hands in thanks and embraced volunteers who had waited at dusk for hours to be there. One man implored him, “Do not quit.”
“All right, go home. It’s cold,” Sanders joked.
As Sanders flew to Vermont with his family and staff, a campaign aide ventured to the back of the plane to speak with reporters.
The aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said the campaign is preparing to make a major push on shaping the party platform at the Democratic National Convention next month.
When asked whether Sanders would be willing to be vetted as a possible vice-presidential candidate for Clinton, the aide flatly said it is “too premature” to answer the question.
An hour later, before ducking into a car in Burlington, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver spoke to reporters and said the candidate was “upbeat.”
“No one is the nominee. The nominee is elected at the convention,” Weaver said when asked whether Sanders will acknowledge Clinton as the Democratic standard-bearer.
When asked whether Sanders considers her to be the presumptive nominee, Weaver shook his head. “That’s a term of art that the media uses,” he said.
“I think he’s very proud of the race that he has run and rightly so, and the race he continues to run,” he added, noting that Sanders is focused this week on reaching out to superdelegates and campaigning in Washington.
Both Weaver and Tad Devine, the campaign’s senior strategist, were on the flight back to Vermont with Sanders on Wednesday.
Devine is a veteran strategist who has deep Democratic ties and has become his liaison to some Clinton advisers. As top Democrats approach the Sanders campaign in this period of positioning and negotiating, Devine is a point of contact for many of them and is seen as a less combative figure than Weaver.