Politics

Sanders Under Fire for Comments ‘Dismissing’ Obama’s Accomplishments

Concerns about connecting with black voters dog the progressive senator

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) / Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) appeared to criticize former President Barack Obama's leadership of the Democratic Party on Wednesday, drawing backlash from those who consider his message to black voters tone-deaf.

Sanders made the comments on Obama while speaking at an event honoring Martin Luther King Jr. in Jackson, Mississippi, a venue that many said was inappropriate for him to chide the country's first black president for losses that Democrats sustained during his presidency, BuzzFeed reported. Sanders has denied that he intended to be critical of Obama, though his comments were certainly critical of Obama's party.

"The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure," Sanders said. "People sometimes don't see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama, who won the presidency in 2008 and 2012."

"He was obviously an extraordinary candidate, brilliant guy," the senator added. "But behind that reality, over the last 10 years, Democrats have lost about 1,000 seats in state legislatures all across this country."

The response from many black voters was harsh. South Carolina Democrat Bakari Sellers took Sanders' comments as "dismissing" Obama and called him "arrogant."

"Bernie 2020 died 4/4/18," Sellers tweeted.

To "dismiss with utter arrogance and lack of self-awareness the first African-African president," he told BuzzFeed on Thursday, is "just the height and epitome of arrogance and lack of self-awareness."

Sanders went on Twitter to hit back at charges that he was denigrating Obama.

"It's unfortunate that some have so degraded our discourse that my recognition of the historical significance of the Obama presidency is attacked," Sanders tweeted.

That response led to even more criticism. Rewire legal analyst Imani Gandy hit Sanders for not even saying Obama was a president, only calling him "an extraordinary candidate."

Sanders has had to fight off criticism that he has not effectively communicated to African-American voters since he lost that demographic to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. His critics say he has not learned how to speak to black people's concerns.

In the past, Sanders has made comments that others on the left deemed racially insensitive or ignorant. BuzzFeed reported that he argued with criminal-justice activists in 2015 about whether black Americans go to jail for drug offenses more often because most drug dealers are African American.

"Aren't most of the people who sell the drugs African American?" Sanders said, according to two people who were present.

Sanders sent BuzzFeed a statement claiming he misspoke during the meeting.

Sanders has long preferred speaking to economic concerns, but he has learned to discuss them alongside race as "parallel issues" after he brought on Symone Sanders as his national press secretary during his 2016 campaign.

"He was unconsciously unskillful on issues of race," said Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. "His framework is income inequality and economic justice. He sees that as the all-inclusive tent."

Criticism has followed Sanders for his choice not to make racial issues central to his politics. When then-Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley drew activists' ire for saying "all lives matter" at the Netroots Nation conference in 2015, Sanders was immediately asked about his views on the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Whoa, whoa whoa whoa whoa," Sanders replied. "Let me talk about what I want to talk about for a moment."

Some of Sanders' surrogates have questioned his decision not to emphasize his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

"If you're talking to a black audience, you've got to say, ‘I was fighting for fair housing in the '60s,'" Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) said.

"Somebody might be interested in what I did 50 years ago, that's fine," Sanders told the New York Times. "Or what I did yesterday. But what people have got to start focusing on is not me. It's how we transform America."