Looking Back at President Bernie Sanders, Six Months Into His Tenure

President Bernie Sanders, who recently celebrated the end of the first six months of his presidency, shocked the political world twice in the past year — once by defeating his Democratic opponent Senator Hillary Clinton, and then by defeating the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Thus, Sanders became the first Jewish president of the United States of America.

President Bernie Sanders

How Was Sanders Elected

President Bernie Sanders began his winning streak by winning Iowa and New Hampshire in comfortable landslides. Those results did not surprise the pundits: both were very friendly to Sanders demographically. But then he went on to comfortably win Nevada as well, and yet, more shockingly, he lost South Carolina only by a slim margin, winning 26 of its 59 delegates.

This near-win made two things clear: firstly, that the Democratic race was a toss-up, and secondly, that demographics did not stop Sanders: he won almost as many votes from minorities as Clinton did.

The race continued with the two opponents almost tied until California. Sanders, riding high on his momentum, won California, adding 305 delegates, securing 2498 delegates, and thus became the presumptive Democratic nominee. He was immediately endorsed by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and other high ranking Democrats for the Presidency. The establishment had resisted him every step along the way, but now it was ready to bow down.

With Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic primary and Donald Trump securing the Republican one, the message of the 2016 election was clear: the rejection of the establishment, politics as usual, and embracing outsider politics, populism, and economic socialism, or as Sanders preferred to put it, Democratic Socialism. The center could not hold; centrists from both party begged Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, to run, but he took a single look at the opinion polls and refused. Nate Silver, who had predicted both primaries incorrectly, retired from journalism.

But the far right and the far left were both happy about the results: on the right, Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon, Senator Jeff Sessions, and Alex Jones celebrated, on the left, the happy ones were Glenn Greenwald, Max Blumenthal, Noam Chomsky, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard.

The left were a little apprehensive when Sanders tapped Hillary Clinton as his running mate. The most ferocious among them decried him as a traitor from that moment. Jill Stein announced that she, unlike what she had previously indicated, would not endorse him and still ran against him. Some leftists who were prone to conspiracy theories openly worried that Clinton might assassinate Sanders once in office in order to become president. However, the vast majority of Sanders’s supporters applauded the move: it would unite the party under his banner, and it would raise his chances of victory.

It was the ugliest election campaign known to contemporary history. Attack ad after attack ad aired against Bernie Sanders, using his “democratic socialist” label in an unfair way to connect him to Stalin and Pol Pot, accusing him of colluding with Cuba and Iran, calling him a coward who would empower the ISIS and weaken the United States. His age was ridiculed, his British brother was mocked, and his wife was dogged by allegations of corruption. Although Clinton was not on the top of the ticket, her emails continued to be an issue. Most disturbingly, a massive wave of antisemitism overtook right wing social media, and Donald Trump himself retweeted some Nazi accounts in attacking Sanders — unknowingly, as his surrogates claimed.

In the debates, Sanders tried to focus only on the issues, while Trump attacked his appearance, his age, and gave him an assortment of nicknames such as “commie Bernie”, “crazy Bernie”, and “seventy year old itch”. Fans of Sanders claimed moral victory, while Democratic strategists worried that Sanders’s inflexibility when it comes to his principles might hurt him, as he refused to fight fire with fire.

Finally, most Republicans voted for Trump, while most Democrats voted for Sanders. Sanders won the election very narrowly — with only 279 electoral votes. He secured about 49% of the popular vote to Trump’s 46%. Sanders lost some major battleground state, such as Ohio and Florida, however, his appeal for the white working class delivered three key states to him: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. These three states put him across the finish line of 270 electoral votes and he was president-elect.

President Bernie Sanders map
2016 Electoral Map.

Many pundits and fans of Hillary Clinton argued that Sanders was tarnished by the label ‘socialist’ and the cruel ad campaign. If Clinton was the nominee, they said, she would have won in a landslide, not only winning all battleground states such as Florida and Ohio, but also traditionally red states such as Arizona. Sanders managed to win the Obama coalition of Rust Belt white working class and minority voters, but polls suggested that Clinton would have won a larger share of votes in places like Texas, where he badly lost. After all, Trump had created scandal after scandal, from calling Senator McCain a loser for being captured to the Access Hollywood tape in which he had bragged about sexual assault. Yet the Republicans had not abandoned him for Sanders. Centrists argue that it was because the Republicans had succeeded in painting Sanders as an extremist, scaring away moderate Republicans from him, a group that Clinton would have more chance of winning over.

In any case, we will never experience an election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, so this is all useless conjecture.

The Trials of President Bernie Sanders

Maybe no other modern president in history has faced so many challenges as President Bernie Sanders. Sanders seems to be surrounded by challenges: an international community seeming to turn hostile against him, a Republican Congress that has intensified the obstructionist policies of the Obama era, the threat of a rising far right movement, but most bitingly for him, a disappointed and increasingly apathetic left, the movement that brought him into power.

His approval ratings have not changed much — they average at about 45%, a normal number for any president in our increasingly partisan era. But look deeper, and you see signs of crisis: his “strong approval” has fallen from about 30% to 24%. Analysts believe that this dip in strong approval rating is due to a cooling in the excitement of his most dedicated supporters, the ones dismissively referred to as “the Bernie Bros” by Clinton supporters during the primaries.

But why have the so-called “Bernie Bros” dampened their moods? Although it’s very unlikely that they will ever abandon Sanders — certainly not for a Republican — they are also disillusioned, some even refer to him as “neo-liberal”, “the same status quo”. Reviewing the first six months of Sanders’s presidency makes this clear: he has proved a decent, competent president, but he has delivered no “revolution”.

It hasn’t been for a lack of trying. President Bernie Sanders nominated Senator Elizabeth Warren for the Secretary of Treasury, but had to pull her name, because it was made clear that the Senate would not vote her in. For his first legislative push, he introduced a bill to add a public option to Obamacare. While still many leftists decried this move as a betrayal (#singlepayerorbust trended on Twitter), most applauded it as a good first step. However, Mitch McConnell did not even bring that bill to the floor. It seems that Sanders’s future plans, such as raising taxes for making colleges free, pushing for minimum wage, and reinstating Glass–Steagall are similarly doomed to fail. And right now the prospect of government shut down looms large. Of course, Sanders keeps urging people for a Democratic congress in 2018 — but if history is our guide, presidents usually lose more seats in midterms rather than gain, especially those with average mediocre approval ratings like Sanders.

But it’s not merely Republican obstructionism that has damped Sanders’s populist agenda. The Democratic establishment has worked with Sanders so far — the Democratic senators have voted with Sanders an average of 95% — but Sanders have worked with them too, buying the wrath of his so-called “Bros” at every step. Progressives were angry when Sanders reintroduced Merrick Garland as the nominee for Supreme Court, as they expected a more progressive person to be nominated in his stead. This infuriated Press Secretary Michael Briggs who heatedly told reporters that “The president believes we must nominate someone who has some actual chance of being approved by the senate”. And he was, finally filling Justice Scalia’s empty seat. Ironically, Sanders’s only outright victory was made bitter for him by angering his progressive fans.

Other cabinet appointees of Sanders have also drawn skepticism and anger from his fans. Sanders reappointed John Kerry, Ash Carter, and Loretta Lynch, respectively in their positions as Secretaries of State and Defense and Attorney General. While he did manage to sneak in some progressive cabinet members — such as successfully appointing Senator Ed Markey as the Secretary of Energy and Representatives Raúl Grijalva as the Secretary of Labor — and while he has avoided appointing anyone with any overt connection to Wall Street — his cabinet still mostly looks like the cabinet of a normal, “establishment” Democrat would, not only because he has to have the officials approved by the Senate, but also because he has been adamant to tap people who are competent and experienced, and these people tend to be, for lack of a better word, “insiders”. That’s why his cabinet has attracted the ire of progressives, including blogger Dan Arel, who described the cabinet as “the same neo-liberal, neo-con bunch of corporate shills who have ruled Washington for years.”

Sanders also angered his base when he decided to green-light a series of coordinated attacks against ISIS in different countries and continued Obama’s drone program. But mostly he angered the progressives when he attacked a few key strongholds of the Syrian Army after President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on civilian populations again. Some speculate that the collective power of his foreign policy team – Kerry, Carter, his National Security Advisor General James Mattis – with the help of Vice President Clinton have pressured him to do so. However, experts believe that the real pressure comes from the reality, that the realm of international relations is beyond the control of one man, and if Sanders chooses to listen to experts, or to prevent alienating allies, he has to stay loyal to the wide framework of foreign policy that both Democratic and Republicans presidents have pursued, and he can’t stray far from it. And he hasn’t, largely continuing Obama’s policies, which has reassured American allies, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has a very close and warm relationship with President Bernie Sanders.

The other obstacle that President Bernie Sanders faces is the national and global rise of the populist right. Donald Trump broke another political norm of the US politics, and did not congratulate Bernie Sanders, and called his election “rigged”. Trump started his Trump TV, with people like Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham at the helm of the news, and with two reality shows about the Trump family. When Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News due to allegations of sexual abuse, he also joined Trump TV. Trump TV has already plunged all other cable channels into irrelevance ratings wise, and many experts believe that this movement is about to devour the Republican Party whole, pushing it even further to the right.

But it’s not only the domestic far right that’s giving Sanders a headache. Far-right candidates have managed to win elections, such as Norbert Hofer in Austria and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, President Emmanuel Macron of France eked out a very narrow victory, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is threatened by Alternative for Germany Party and she might be forced to share a coalition government with them. And while Theresa May of the UK is no far-right, it still speaks something of the global mood that she managed to absolutely crush Jeremy Corbyn in the snap elections and securing the most clear majority for any party in the history of Britain. It’s interesting that Trump’s narrow loss did nothing to prevent the rise of the far right in Europe.

The Final Assessment of President Bernie Sanders

President Sanders is forced to dance a very delicate dance on the world stage. He’s trying to improve relations with Iran, welcomed by the reformist administration of President Hassan Rouhani but completely derailed by the more powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, without angering the Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes too much. He has tried to soften the US’s approach toward Palestine without alienating Israel too much. Ironically, the Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu is no fan of the first Jewish president of the United States. The Sanders administration has pursued diligent diplomacy with North Korea, enlisting the help of China. While Vladimir Putin was visibly unhappy to see Trump lose, he has adapted to the new reality and is working with President Bernie Sanders, although he’s angry that Sanders has allowed investigations into Russian meddling into the election to continue.

Sanders angered his fans when his administration made it clear that it’s not pulling out of NAFTA. But here, again, Sanders is not selling out to the establishment, he’s simply adapting to the realities of governance. In this turbulent world the US cannot afford to upend the norms too much or to alienate allies such as Mexico and Canada, and six months has been enough for Sanders to learn the value of prudence. He may not be a revolutionary or a historic president. President Bernie Sanders may be only marginally different from a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton. But he’s diligent, careful, competent, and willing to learn, and therefore a reassurance to the world as the president of the world’s only superpower.

Radical Democrats and Progressives who are disappointed in him should not think of him only in terms of what he has done, but what he hasn’t done. It would be easy to imagine what would have happened under someone like President Trump. Definitely a Christian theocratic ultra-conservative such as Neil Gorsuch would be on the Supreme Court, the Obamacare would have been already repealed, the Iran Deal was shredded, US would have begun a trade war with China, an actual war with Iran and North Korea, and the existing order would have been completely upended.

I mean, it’s impossible to imagine a scenario where Republicans control all three branches of the government and none of those things have happened, right? Definitely.

Therefore, count your blessings and be grateful for President Bernie Sanders.

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