WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama formally endorsed Hillary Clinton’s White House bid on Thursday and called for the Democratic Party to unite behind her after a protracted battle with Bernie Sanders for the party nomination.
Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said it “means the world” to her that Obama has her back.
The endorsement increases pressure on Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, to bow out of the race and lend his support to Clinton so the party can focus on campaigning against Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for the Nov. 8 election.
“It is absolutely a joy and an honor that President Obama and I over the years have gone from fierce competitors to true friends,” Clinton told Reuters in an interview.
Obama defeated Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, and she went on to serve as secretary of state in his first term as president. After an unexpectedly tough battle this time around against Sanders’ challenge from the left, this week she clinched the number of delegates needed to win the party nomination, becoming the first woman to lead a major U.S. party as its White House candidate.
Obama, who enjoys strong approval ratings after nearly eight years in office, will appear with Clinton next week in Wisconsin, her campaign said.
“I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office,” Obama said of Clinton in a video. “I’m with her. I am fired up, and I cannot wait to get out there and campaign for Hillary.” His endorsement had been expected since she clinched the nomination.
Trump assailed the endorsement on Twitter: “He wants four more years of Obama-but nobody else does!”
Clinton’s campaign responded, “Delete your account.”
Sanders, who galvanized young voters with his calls for more social equality and measures to rein in Wall Street, has been reluctant to concede the race, despite concerns among Democratic Party leaders that continuing party divisions could hamper Clinton’s efforts to beat Trump.
The senator met with Obama at the White House earlier on Thursday, and said afterward he would work with Clinton to defeat Trump. Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, who met separately with Sanders on Thursday, said the Vermont lawmaker had accepted that Clinton was the nominee.
Sanders told reporters on Thursday, however, that he would stay in the race to compete in the final Democratic primary vote in Washington, D.C., on June 14.
Obama recalled the party unity that followed his prolonged primary battle against Clinton in 2008, and that saw him elected in November that year.
“Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders may have been rivals during this primary, but they’re both patriots who love this country and they share a vision for an America that we all believe in,” Obama said in the video.
Nearly half of Americans in a recent Reuters/Ipsos survey approved of Obama’s handling of his presidency, a high mark for a president at this point in the job. Among Democrats, his approval rating was 82.3 percent, though 84.3 percent of Republicans in the poll disapproved of his leadership.
Senior Democrats are seeking a delicate balance between the need to unite behind Clinton in the looming battle against Trump while not alienating Sanders and his supporters.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, like Sanders a progressive and fiery critic of Wall Street, is preparing to endorse Clinton in the coming weeks after staying neutral in the Democratic primary, people familiar with her thinking told Reuters.
Clinton said she and Warren had similar views about key issues such as economic policy and protecting the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Warren pushed to start.
“I’m really pleased to have her good ideas and support,” Clinton said of the Massachusetts senator.
In the interview with Reuters, Clinton said her overall economic package, including plans to rein in Wall Street and cut taxes for the middle class, would come during the first 100 days of her presidency if she defeats Trump.
Clinton has previously said a plan to generate jobs by investing in transportation and other infrastructure spending and immigration reform would be among other early priorities.
“One of the things that President Obama said yesterday is he thought his job was to remind the American people what a really serious job this is, the tough choices, the hard decisions, the high stakes in choosing a president and commander in chief,” Clinton said.
“And I know how important it is to get off to a really good start in the White House,” she said.
While Democrats focused on unity, Republicans were still grappling with controversy over Trump’s attacks on Mexican-American U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing fraud lawsuits against Trump’s defunct real estate training school.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told reporters on Thursday the Trump situation was “fine.” But he suggested Trump should change tactics toward making more measured remarks, as he did in a speech after primary elections this week.
Trump, a wealthy real estate developer who became the party’s presumptive nominee last month after seeing off 16 rivals, is well behind Clinton’s campaign in terms of fundraising and policy infrastructure.
On Thursday, his top donors were holding their first official meeting in New York.