The Democratic Party began to unite around presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Thursday as President Barack Obama formally endorsed her candidacy and rival Bernie Sanders signaled he will soon drop out of the contest.
In his endorsement, Obama called his former secretary of state possibly the most qualified person ever to run for president of the United States.
“She’s got the courage, the compassion, and the heart to get the job done,” Obama said in a video released by Clinton’s campaign. “I have seen her judgment. I’ve seen her toughness. I’ve seen her commitment to our values up close. And I’ve seen her determination to give every American a fair shot at opportunity, no matter how tough the fight – that’s what’s always driven her, and still does.”
The long-expected endorsement came after Obama and Sanders met for more than an hour at the White House two days after Clinton secured enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination after a lengthy fight with the Vermont senator.
Sanders and Obama appeared in good spirits as they walked together to the Oval Office, smiling and talking. Afterward, Sanders told reporters that he would stay in the contest through the final primary in Washington, D.C., next Tuesday.
But in another sign that the primary battle was coming to an end, Sanders’ remarks focused not on Clinton, but on presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Sanders said he spoke to Clinton Tuesday night, when she declared herself the nominee.
“I congratulated her on her very strong campaign,” he said. “I look forward to meeting with her in the near future to see how we can work together to defeat Donald Trump and create a government which represents all of us and not just the 1 percent.”
Obama and Clinton will campaign together Wednesday in Green Bay, Wisconsin – a battleground state that Obama won twice.
Obama’s endorsement was an important step toward ending what had been a divisive Democratic primary season, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey.
“It sends a clear message to all Democratic leaders who have been quiet that it is now safe to come out in the open,” Murray said. “And that avalanche will in turn send a message to Sanders’ supporters that it is indeed over.”
Several prominent Democrats, who had declined to endorse in the race, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a favorite of the liberal wing of the party, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who dropped his bid for the nomination earlier this year, threw their support to Clinton.
The Democratic comity came as Trump’s campaign continued to be battered by denunciations from his fellow Republicans over remarks Trump made impugning a federal judge’s impartiality because of his Mexican heritage. A coterie of Republicans leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, labeled the remarks “racist” – though they said they would still back the nominee.
On Thursday, Ryan reiterated his distress at Trump’s comments in an appearance on MSNBC, saying Trump “has a ways to go to give us a campaign we can all be proud of.”
A quick closing of the ranks by Clinton and Sanders supporters would be welcomed by a Democratic leadership that was caught largely by surprise by the outpouring of support for Sanders, a 74-year-old self-described socialist who relishes being a champion of the underpaid, overworked American worker.
In a year when Clinton was expected to walk away easily with the nomination, Sanders won primary contests in more than 20 states, collecting 12 million votes and the rock-star-like adulation of millions, many of them young. On Tuesday, he won caucuses in both North Dakota and Montana.
Clinton, however, finished with a majority of the votes and of the delegates – and a strong victory in California that helped deflate any remaining hopes that Sanders could somehow take the prize from her at the party’s convention in Philadelphia next month.
Sanders spent the day meeting with Democratic leaders, from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to his colleagues on Capitol Hill. He focused steadfastly on Trump.
“Donald Trump would clearly, to my mind and I think the majority of Americans, be a disaster as president of the United States,” he said.
“It is unbelievable to me, and I say this with all sincerity, that the Republican Party would have a candidate for president, who in the year 2016 makes bigotry and discrimination the cornerstone of his campaign,” Sanders added. “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 of the United States.”
Trump responded by Twitter saying “Obama just endorsed Crooked Hillary. He wants four more years of Obama – but nobody else does!”
Sanders returned to the Senate Thursday, where’s he’s represented Vermont as an independent since 2007, and found a universal, comforting message from his colleagues: Take your time. We like you and respect you. But don’t take too much time.
Sanders met with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who praised him as “instrumental” to passing the Affordable Care Act six years ago.
They discussed their Senate years together, and Reid, 76, wondered how Sanders, 74, had the energy to keep going. “During this whole campaign, I’ve never seen him tired but once,” Reid said.
“I feel I’m in a good place with Bernie. I feel Bernie’s in a good place with my caucus, and I feel he’s in a good place with the country,” he said. “I’m not pushing him to do anything.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who endorsed Clinton just before polls opened there Tuesday, saw little serious risk in allowing Sanders to finish out his primary campaign. She said she understood why it’s important to give Sanders and his backers time to heal.
“It’s hard. It’s very hard,” she said. “People have their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations riding on a candidate and sometimes it’s really harder for the supporters to come to reconciliation than it is for the candidate.”
Sanders, who was a House member for 16 years before becoming a senator in 2007, “knows what’s at stake in this election, what’s on the line,” Pelosi said.
Lesley Clark in Washington contributed.