Susan Walsh/AP
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January 25, 2016 02:30 PM

President Obama has so far shied away from endorsing a successor, but in a wide-ranging new interview he praises his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton – and offers his own, less-than-flattering explanation for Bernie Sanders‘ growing appeal.

“Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose,” Obama tells Politico. “I think Hillary came in with the both privilege – and burden – of being perceived as the front-runner.”

“You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before,” he adds of Sanders. “That’s a disadvantage to her.”

Calling Clinton “wicked smart” and “extraordinarily experienced,” but “cautious” compared to her Democratic counterpart, Obama echoes Clinton’s own critique of the socialist senator from Vermont, suggesting that she, rather than Sanders, best understands the pragmatic demands of being president.

“I think that what Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives,” Obama says.

“[The] one thing everybody understands is that this job right here, you don’t have the luxury of just focusing on one thing.” Asked if he believes Sanders is a “one-issue candidate too narrowly focused on income inequality,” Obama “didn’t dispute the assertion.”

Asked if Sanders reminds the president of himself and his own hope-and-change message in the 2008 election, however, Obama quickly shoots the interviewer down: “I don’t think that’s true.”

One of Sanders’ top advisers sees things differently. In a rebuttal to the president’s interview, the Vermont senator’s senior campaign adviser, former labor leader Larry Cohen, tells CNN that Obama’s likening of Sanders to a “bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before” is “the parallel to [Obama’s] own journey eight years ago And I think Bernie and actually all of the Democratic candidates are about a positive vision of the future. Bernie’s is about change, not just continuity, in the similar way that then-Senator Obama was talking about change.”

“And I would say to him, ‘With all due respect, Mr. President, the same kind of change that you had hoped to work for, Bernie is trying to continue on that path, not go back to the 1990s of President Clinton,’ ” he adds.

Obama himself suggests that “the candidate who can project hope still is the candidate who the American people, over the long term, will gravitate towards” – but those close to the president say he’s still convinced Clinton is the candidate who’s best equipped to beat the Republicans.

As Sanders gains steadily on Clinton in the polls – even leading her narrowly in Iowa and New Hampshire – Obama is “not panicked,” one former top aide tells Politico, “but he’s clearly thumbing the scale for Hillary.”

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