WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Monday that President Barack Obama's major failure in office has been an inability to recognize quickly enough that congressional Republicans were never good-faith partners in governance.
"If you were to ask me what his major mistake has been, it's that he thought that after putting together this extraordinary grassroots movement of young people, minorities and working-class people and getting elected to the presidency, then he thought he could sit down with the Republicans and negotiate all these agreements. He was mistaken," Sanders told a gathering at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Though the senator said he had respect and personal affection for Obama and predicted that history would judge the president more kindly than his contemporaries have, Sanders concluded that Obama wasted valuable time and squandered opportunities to enact progressive policies that the majority of Americans want.
"The American people say raise the minimum wage, the United States Congress says give tax breaks to billionaires," he said. "The American people say we have to move towards sustainable and clean energy and energy efficiency, the United States Congress says build the Keystone Pipeline. And on and on."
Complaints like these are common among progressives in and out of Congress, who look back at the majorities Democrats had in 2009 and 2010 and wonder: What if? Sanders’ answer to that hypothetical is that the president would have been far better positioned earlier on to push the same policies he now finds stalled in the closing years of his administration, with Republicans controlling both congressional chambers.
"The only way that any president in this day and age taking on the billionaire class can succeed -- the only possible way -- is to mobilize tens of millions of people to save the Congress," he said.
Sanders noted that Obama's doomed efforts to find Republican partners did more than just delay legislation: It also had the effect of depressing voter turnout, which in turn hurt the president once again. Many of the same demographic groups that turned out in record numbers in the past two presidential elections didn't pull nearly the same numbers in the midterms.
"If we continue to have elections in which 63 percent of the people don't vote, 80 percent of young people don't vote, then the rich will only get richer and will continue to dominate what goes on here in Washington," Sanders said. "Any serious president that wants to represent working families has to mobilize people all over this country to make the Congress an offer they can't refuse."
Sanders, who has expressed his interest in a possible presidential run, did not give any definitive answers when asked about his 2016 plans at Monday's event. Asked about current Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, he called her "a remarkable woman with an extraordinary history of public service" and criticized the amount of attention paid to the scandal over her emails, saying there were far more important issues.
"In all the years I've been in Congress, not one person in media came up to me and said 'Bernie, we have the highest rate of child poverty in the industrialized world. What are you going to do about it?'"