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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate in Milwaukee, Wis., Feb. 11, 2016. (Reuters) Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate in Milwaukee, Wis., Feb. 11, 2016. (Reuters)

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate in Milwaukee, Wis., Feb. 11, 2016. (Reuters)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson February 12, 2016

Did Bernie Sanders call President Barack Obama 'weak' and 'a disappointment'?

In one of the more heated exchanges of the Democratic presidential debate in Wisconsin, Hillary Clinton accused Bernie Sanders of having shown too little loyalty to President Barack Obama.

Clinton said, "In the past, (Sanders) has called (Obama) weak. He’s called him a disappointment." For emphasis, she later repeated the charge that Sanders had used the words "weak" and "disappointment."

But did he? We found lots of examples of Sanders prodding Obama to take a more aggressively liberal approach to governing, and we have previously found some truth to the charge that Sanders had tried to find someone to challenge Obama in a primary when he was running for a second term in 2012.

But the specific charge Clinton made -- that Sanders used the words "weak" and "disappointment"  -- were at best exaggerated.

We found two examples when Sanders used one or both of those words, both of which are murkier than Clinton lets on.

One is an interview Sanders gave broadcaster Thom Hartmann on July 22, 2011. Sanders lamented that Obama, in his view, had moved too far to the right politically. But while Sanders used the words Clinton cited, he didn’t say that he himself felt that way.

Specifically, Sanders said, "I think there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president, who believe that with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president, who cannot believe how weak he has been — for whatever reason — in negotiating with Republicans. And there’s deep disappointment."

Note Sanders’ language: He says "millions of Americans" feel that way, not that he did so himself. It’s a small difference, but we think a significant one given the forcefulness of Clinton’s attack line.

The other example we found came on Nov. 13, 2011, when Politico reported that Sanders would not say whether he would support Obama for re-election (though he ultimately did).

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The Politico article quoted Sanders saying that Obama should "stop reaching negotiated agreements with Republicans that are extremely weak and disadvantageous to ordinary people. ... I certainly hope and expect to be supporting the president, but it’s a little bit early in the process."

Here, Sanders said Obama had reached weak agreements with his political adversaries, not that Obama himself was personally weak. Once again, this is more nuanced than Clinton’s assertion made it out to be.

We should note that Sanders has used other words to distance himself from Obama’s policies and approach to governing.

For instance, in July 2015, Sanders told Jim Tankersley, a writer for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, "In many respects, the president was not strong enough on many issues. For example, he’s wrong on the trade issue, dead wrong. Also, the president made a mistake, that after his brilliant campaign of 2008, he essentially said to his most motivated supporters, thanks very much for electing me, but I’ll go from here on my own. I’ll sit down and negotiate with Boehner and Mitch McConnell, and I really don’t need you anymore. Terrible mistake. Because the only way forward, to bring forth a progressive agenda, is to have the American people mobilized."

This is certainly a critical assessment of Obama’s tenure, but it doesn’t include the words "weak" or "disappointment."

Our ruling

Clinton said Sanders has called Obama "weak. He's called him a disappointment."  

Sanders has critiqued Obama and used those words to describe the feelings of Americans, or to describe Obama’s policies. But Sanders did not specifically call Obama "weak" and "a disappointment."

We rate the claim Half True.

Our Sources

Hillary Clinton, remarks during the Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee, Feb. 11, 2016

Bernie Sanders, comments on the Thom Hartmann Program, July 22, 2011

Politico, "Some Dems refuse to back Obama," Nov. 13, 2011

Washington Post, "Bernie Sanders on America’s ‘grotesquely unfair’ society," July 16, 2015, "FactChecking the Fourth Democratic Debate," Jan. 18, 2016

PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Martin O'Malley's claim that Bernie Sanders sought primary challenger to Obama," Nov. 10, 2015

Email interview with Warren Gunnels, spokesman for Bernie Sanders, Feb. 11, 2016

Email interview with Josh Schwerin, spokesman for Hillary Clinton, Feb. 11, 2016

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More by Louis Jacobson

Did Bernie Sanders call President Barack Obama 'weak' and 'a disappointment'?

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