President Obama, in an extensive interview published Monday, defended Hillary Clinton and questioned Bernie Sanders in his strongest terms yet – likening him to a “bright, shiny object” and dismissing comparisons between his own 2008 bid and Sanders’ rise.
Weighing in extensively on the race a week before the leadoff Iowa caucuses where Clinton and Sanders are locked in a tight race, the president told Politico that Clinton entered the race with the “privilege and burden of being perceived as the frontrunner.”
By contrast, he said, “I think Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete longshot and just letting loose.”
Obama offered this context to explain the dynamic in the race, with Sanders increasingly posing a challenge to what was once thought to be Clinton’s cakewalk to the nomination. He cast Clinton as the experienced candidate, and Sanders as the new political attraction that has captured voters’ attention.
“She is a good, smart, tough person who cares deeply about this country, and she has been in the public eye for a long time and in a culture in which new is always better. And, you know, you're always looking at the bright, shiny object that people don't, haven't seen before,” Obama said. “That's a disadvantage to her. Bernie is somebody who -- although I don't know as well because he wasn't, obviously, in my administration, has the virtue of saying exactly what he believes, and great authenticity, great passion, and is fearless. His attitude is, ‘I got nothing to lose.’”
Obama, though, dismissed any potential comparison between his own 2008 bid and Sanders’ 2016 run.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Obama said, when asked about whether Sanders is an “analog” for Obama.
Asked repeatedly about the 2016 race, the president was extremely cautious to avoid showing explicit favor in the Democratic race. White House officials have said Obama will not endorse in the primary, which pits his 2008 primary opponent and former secretary of state against a liberal independent senator from Vermont who many Democrats feel embodies the upstart, idealistic nature of Obama's own campaign.
But Obama clearly questioned his readiness and touted Clinton’s experience.
The president said Clinton is "wicked smart," but that her strengths are also her weaknesses. Praising her extensive preparation for the Oval Office, Obama said Clinton's experience had taught her to "campaign more in prose than poetry."
Asked toward the end of the interview whether Sanders should be more rounded, he said: “You don't have the luxury of just focusing on one thing.”
Obama said there was no doubt Sanders had tapped into a "running thread" in Democratic politics that questions why people should be scared to talk bluntly about inequality and "be full-throated in our progressivism."
"You know, that has an appeal," Obama said. "And I understand that."
Turning to the Republican primary, Obama said Donald Trump and Ted Cruz exploit an anger and frustration that is real within the Republican Party. But he said his hope was that when voting began, Republicans "will settle down and say, `Who do we want actually sitting behind the desk, making decisions that are critical to our future?"'
In the interview, Obama reflected on his own victory in Iowa eight years ago as the most satisfying of his political career, praising the process as a true expression of the way American democracy is supposed to work.
And he acknowledged his own weaknesses as an untested national candidate in 2008 in the high-stakes campaign in Iowa.
"I was too wonkish. I wasn't crisp in my presentation, and that was true for a while," Obama said. He said in his own primary campaign against Clinton, his supporters and staff "got too huffy" about legitimate questions that Clinton and her campaign had raised.
"There were times where I think the media probably was a little unfair to her and tilted a little my way in calling her out when she was tough, and not calling some of our folks out as much when we were tough in ads," Obama said.
Meanwhile, in a separate interview Sunday with CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” Obama said he wouldn’t run for a third term even if he could. He said the presidency takes a toll on family life, and the office "should be continually renewed by new energy and new ideas."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.