Obama and his circle tend to see Sanders’s You’re with us or you’re wrong approach as unworkable and and the criticism of his own record as president overrepresented on Twitter (Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is consistently in the 90s).
The low point between the two men was a 2013 meeting with other Democratic senators. Obama had just put a chained Consumer Price Index in his budget, a proposal that would cut Social Security benefits by tying them to the rate of inflation. Many Senate Democrats were angry about it. But when they arrived for the meeting, it was Sanders who bubbled up, ripping into Obama for giving in to Republicans and not understanding the impact of the cuts.
“I don’t need a lecture,” Obama told him, according to several senators who attended the meeting.
Sanders proceeded to give him one anyway. A number of the senators there were struck by what they told me seemed like a lack of respect.
“Obama fairly forcefully pushed back and said, ‘That’s just not right—that’s not a vision that’s enactable or possible,’” one senator in the room recalled, asking for anonymity to discuss the private meeting. “‘You’re acting like I’m the enemy.’ Obama was trying to say, ‘I hear you that you want this revolution, but explain to me, how’s this going to happen? Look at the current makeup of the Senate and the House. How am I supposed to lead?’” Obama said, in this senator’s memory. The conversation quickly got testy. “It seemed the match of someone who prided himself on his cool intellect and removed analysis versus someone who was convinced with absolute ferocity with the rightness of his world view and is not given to accepting anything from those who don’t agree with it.”
“I just remember thinking, Whoa, Bernie’s got game,” a second senator who was in the room told me. “I also remember thinking, There’s no love lost between them.”
In the end, most of the caucus took the position that Sanders voiced, opposing the chained Consumer Price Index, and Obama relented and dropped the idea. That was Sanders and Obama’s last substantive discussion before Sanders started winning support in his 2016 presidential run. Alumni of the Obama West Wing whom I spoke with had trouble remembering any time when they were in touch with Sanders or his staff for anything significant, even around the 2014 passage of a bipartisan veterans’-health bill, which is generally regarded as the most significant legislation Sanders got through Congress.
Obama and Sanders have worked to improve their relationship since Obama left office, starting with a one-on-one meeting in 2018, when they discussed their ideas about what Democrats should be working on, what counted as practical, and what counted as idealistic.
Their views did not line up, people familiar with the conversation told me afterward. But the men share a respect for the political movement the other has built.