Kathleen Hennessey

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama and his aides have said a lot of nice things about Bernie Sanders, but not this one: He’s ready to be president.

The key omission was particularly noticeable Wednesday as Obama and Sanders met for their first one-on-one since Sanders jolted the Democratic campaign and locked Hillary Clinton in an unexpectedly tight race.

The long-discussed meeting between Obama and his sometime critic was a moment for the president to display his public neutrality in the heated primary race to replace him — rebutting suggestions that he’s in the tank for Clinton. For Sanders, it was a chance to show he’s got some sway with a president who’s still popular among Democrats.

“By and large, over the last seven years on major issue after major issue, I have stood by his side where he has taken on unprecedented Republican obstructionism and has tried to do the right thing for the American people,” Sanders said after the meeting.

But neither the White House nor Sanders is suggesting the men are kindred spirits, or even close political allies. White House officials say the men lack much of a personal relationship and have markedly different approaches to politics. The president this week declared bluntly he doesn’t see Sanders’ upstart campaign as a reboot of his own battle against Clinton in 2008. Obama allies bristle at comparisons between Sanders and the president.

It’s a reminder that even as Obama watches the nomination battle from a distance, he is personally tied to the outcome. He remains focused on ensuring a Democrat wins the White House and on protecting his legacy. Increasingly, it appears, he sees Clinton as his best hope.

Sanders emerged from the 45-minute meeting with gracious things to say about his host.

He said he believes Obama has been “even handed” in his dealing with the candidates. The president has campaigned for him in the past, Sanders noted, harking back a decade to an appearance then-Sen. Obama made in Vermont. And he has campaigned for Obama, he said, delivering a pointed rebuke to Clinton, who has suggested Sanders has been disloyal to the president.

The White House had kind words for Sanders’ contribution to Democrats enthusiasm, although not his leadership.

“That ability to engage Democrats and excite them and inspire them will be critical to the success of Democrats up and down the ballot,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “Whether Senator Sanders is the nominee or not.”