President Obama dispensed with his long-held pledge of neutrality in the Democratic presidential race Thursday, backing Hillary Clinton as the most qualified candidate to succeed him in the nation’s highest office.
“I know how hard this job can be. That’s why I know Hillary will be so good at it,” he said in a video message released by Clinton’s campaign. “I am with her. I am fired up. And I cannot wait to get out there and campaign for Hillary.”
The endorsement, quickly followed by the announcement that Obama will join Clinton on the campaign trail in Wisconsin next week, accelerated what had been expected to be a careful, deliberate effort to bring the occasionally bitter Democratic primary to an amicable conclusion.
It came only moments after the president had granted a courtesy call in the Oval Office to Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and fiery progressive running against Clinton who has yet to formally suspend his campaign. And hours later, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a favorite of the party’s liberal wing, also moved to endorse Clinton.
When the day started, Sanders appeared to be holding on to his chance to leverage his unexpected success in the nomination fight – he earned more than 12 million votes and won more than 20 states and territories – for concessions from Democratic leaders on the party platform, changes to future nominating rules and even party leadership roles.
But in a series of meetings, first with Obama and then on Capitol Hill, Sanders offered no clarity about his plans to drop out or to back Clinton, and said nothing about what he might ask of Democrats in return.
Reading a statement to reporters outside the West Wing after his meeting with Obama, but before the endorsement was announced, Sanders said only that he would continue to campaign in the District of Columbia ahead of the final primary contest here Tuesday.
But in a nod to Democrats’ desire to see the party focus on the general election fight, Sanders also attacked Donald Trump. He said it was “unbelievable” to him that Republicans would nominate a figure “who makes bigotry and discrimination the cornerstone of his campaign.”
“Needless to say, I am going to do everything in my power — and I will work as hard as I can — to make sure that Donald Trump does not become president,” he said.
“I’m not pushing him to do anything if he needs a little time to decide what he wants to do,” he said. “I don’t think Bernie Sanders is holding out for anything. I think he is somebody who is interested in changing the direction of the country. He’s done that with this historic election.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Reid’s likely successor as the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, likewise, praised Sanders’ contributions and put a positive spin on the road ahead.
“He’s not bitter; he’s not angry,” Schumer said. “We’re going to have a great and constructive relationship.”
As for Obama, he had already congratulated Clinton for securing the nomination this week. But he went further in the video message, saying she had “the courage, the compassion and the heart to get the job done.”
Noting their history as rivals in a presidential primary, he said her decision to serve as his secretary of State was “a testament to her character.”
“I have seen her judgment, I’ve seen her toughness, I’ve seen her commitment to our values up close,” he said.
It “meant the world” to her to have Obama’s support, Clinton said in an interview with Reuters.
“It is absolutely a joy and an honor that President Obama and I, over the years, have gone from fierce competitors to true friends,” she said.
Even as Obama remained publicly neutral through the primary campaign, he at times weighed in on the race in ways that appeared to favor her. The White House and members of Clinton’s campaign – many themselves former administration officials – were in regular contact throughout the race, and with Sanders’ to a lesser extent.
The conversation Thursday between Obama and Sanders was their third in a week. Aides said Sanders would not have been surprised to learn of the release of the endorsement video, which was recorded Tuesday as votes were still being cast California and five other states.
“The president is deeply respectful of Sen. Sanders and the campaign that he has run over the last year or so,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “They had a serious conversation about the stakes of the upcoming general election and about the future of the Democratic Party.”
Sanders went ahead with a scheduled rally in Washington on Thursday night. Elsewhere in Washington, Warren, an ideological ally, was ramping up her own presence as a political player. Already one of the most effective anti-Trump voices in the party, she was set to join Vice President Joe Biden at an event where she intended to make a blistering critique of the presumptive GOP nominee.
“Donald Trump is a loud, nasty, thin-skinned fraud who has never risked anything for anyone and serves nobody but himself. And that is just one of the many reasons why he will never be president of the United States,” she was to say, according to prepared remarks released by her Senate office.
Warren’s allies had already let it be known not only that she intended to endorse Clinton, but also that she was also intrigued by the idea of serving as her vice president.
Reid has made no secret of advocating for Warren as a potential Clinton running mate. But at the same time, Democrats are interested in helping Sanders continue the movement he has launched, if he wants their input.
An obvious landing spot for him would be back in Congress, where Sanders could play a more influential leadership role than he did before his presidential run. One opening could emerge at the helm of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which would provide a substantial venue to develop his proposals for free college, among others.
That could be an even more powerful perch than a Cabinet position, following the model of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who wielded influence when he held the committee’s gavel.
But those conversations appear to be driven more by Sanders than perhaps anyone else. Notably absent from his agenda Thursday was a visit to the other key Democratic leader, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.
Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.
3:24 p.m.: This story was updated throughout with new details and comments.
11:29 a.m.: This article was updated with Obama’s announcement.
10:19 a.m.: This article was updated with Bernie Sanders’ comments after meeting with President Obama and additional details.
This article was originally published at 8:37 a.m.