President Barack Obama is expected to take on a tough job on Thursday — trying to ensure that millions of Bernie Sanders supporters begin falling in behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
It will be difficult for Clinton to defeat Donald Trump without a large number of the 12 million people who have cast primary votes so far for the independent Vermont senator.
What's more, Obama and Democratic leaders are eager to keep Sanders involved in the presidential race, fearful that his absence could drive down Democratic turnout in November — especially in a handful of key battleground states that could decide the next president.
That's why Obama, in a private Oval Office meeting, is expected to offer Sanders a role in helping her take on Donald Trump, and in shaping the party's policy agenda.
The White House signaled Wednesday that the president views Clinton as the party's nominee to succeed him after her delegate tally reached 2,777 after Tuesday's primaries . That’s well beyond the 2,383 needed to secure the party’s presidential nod.
Obama’s late-Tuesday telephone call to Clinton was “congratulatory” in tone, Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday. He said the president is “obviously cheering for the Democratic nominee” before noting that Sanders' wide support is “not anything that should be taken lightly.”
When Sanders makes his second visit to the Oval Office since late January, the message may well be both appreciative and goading. And Sanders will be under mounting pressure from many Democrats to bow out soon.
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons said the president’s message to Sanders will likely sound like this: "If you continue to insist on a campaign trajectory that is at most an extreme long shot, you are simply contributing to the likely election of Donald Trump."
“The president may well say to Senator Sanders, ‘You’ve achieved your objectives. You’ve moved the conversation. You inspired millions of voters,’” Coons said Wednesday. “‘Now’s the time for you to contribute to our electing a Democratic president, winning back the Senate so you, as the chair of the Budget Committee, have solid ground from which to advance your priorities and objectives.”
Asked if he is worried that Sanders will stay in the race long enough to play a spoiler role, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said: “The president, Senator Sanders [and] other Democrats are now looking at the end game. And that’s about ensuring there’s not a new president who wants to turn back the clock.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., told CNN on Wednesday that "we should be a little graceful and give him the opportunity to decide on his own" when to drop out.
As the head of the Democratic Party, Obama must make clear that Democrats are thankful that the Sanders campaign elevated issues such as reversing income inequality, tightening the reigns on large banks and corporations, and lessening the role of money in politics.
He also must give Sanders assurances that the party will make those, and other policy issues important to the self-described “democratic socialist,” part of its general election and legislative platforms. Importantly, Obama must ensure Sanders begins urging his supporters to back Clinton .
But if Sanders concludes such promises are unconvincing or hollow, he could opt to make good on his Tuesday night vow to "take the fight for social, economic and racial justice to Philadelphia," where Democrats will hold their nominating convention in July.
Obama will not appear before the cameras with Clinton for a formal announcement before his meeting with Sanders on Thursday, Earnest said.
Instead, the president first will hold what his top spokesman described as a “private meeting” with Sanders to “convey his appreciation for the kind of agenda that Senator Sanders has run on.”
In a preview of Obama’s message, Earnest credited Sanders for years of being “dogged on addressing issues” that otherwise might not be on voters minds at this point in the election cycle.
One of the few senators with whom Obama is close, Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, is advising patience.
“The key thing is it’s a process, and even if Senator Sanders in short order did an endorsement, the [party] unification doesn’t end there,” Casey said Wednesday. “It’s going to take a little while.”
“But I think it can be achieved and it will be,” he added. “I think we’re in a much better position to unify our party than the other guys are .”
That was a common theme among Democratic lawmakers and White House aides hours after Clinton delivered a victory speech in Brooklyn as the country’s first female presumptive presidential nominee from a major party. Several used words like “chaos” and “disarray” to describe the relationship between Trump, the GOP’s likely nominee, and many of his party’s congressional caucus and voting base .
Wyden predicts a “friendly conversation” between Obama and Sanders, focused on a “common objective.” That goal, he said, is “to defeat Donald Trump, someone whose views are sharply in contrast with his (Sanders’).”
“I wouldn’t expect a lot of fireworks ,” Wyden added. “I think they’re going to talk about ways in which there can be a coming together.”
Sanders backer Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said he expects the candidate will fulfill his commitment to stay in the race through the District Of Columbia’s June 14 primary.
But Merkley also predicted Democrats would be united by the time the party’s Philadelphia nominating convention gavels in on July 25.
Ultimately, Sanders likely will “gracefully back away,” Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield , D-N.C., said, adding that “he also has common sense, and he understands the political reality of his position.”
Niels Lesniewski and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report. Contact Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.