US Democratic nomination: Hillary Clinton backs Barack Obama's record in response to Bernie Sanders surge

The former Secretary of State is neck and neck with the Vermont Senator in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to decide who to nominate for the White House

Hillary Clinton has been forced to change tack and aggressively embrace the record of President Barack Obama in response to the increasingly successful campaign by her self-proclaimed Democrat Socialist rival, Senator Bernie Sanders. 

Her move follows signs that Mr Sanders threatens what her campaign hoped would be straightforward wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to decide who to nominate for the White House.

Although nationally she polls strongly against Mr Sanders, he is neck and neck with her in Iowa, which kicks off the nominating scramble in two weeks’ time. And in New Hampshire, next door to his own Vermont, he may be slightly ahead.

Her advisers hope her new tack will endear her to traditional Democrats as well as younger voters in Iowa. It was on vivid display in the final debate between Democrat hopefuls before the Iowa caucuses – the primary in New Hampshire will follow a week later – on Sunday evening in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr Sanders lambasted Ms Clinton on a range of issues, in particular what he called her far-too-cosy relationship with Wall Street.

Ms Clinton is haunted by memories of 2008 when Mr Obama stunned her in Iowa, winning the state’s caucuses that year. Although he later lost to her in New Hampshire, the damage was done. Her decision to play the continuity card, promising to build on the progressive foundation laid by Mr Obama, carries risks. She is doing it in a year when voters in both parties are showing an appetite for anything but the status quo – thus the blast into orbit by Republicans of Donald Trump. And if she becomes the nominee, it will surely offer easy bait to Republicans, all of whom relish rubbishing the president.

But that is how she went after Senator Sanders’ plan to introduce free health care for all in the US, along the lines of Britain’s National Health Service. What that would mean, she insisted, was tearing up the Affordable Healthcare Act, or Obamacare: “This is one of the greatest accomplishments of President Obama, of the Democratic Party and our country – and we have already seen 19 million Americans get insurance.”

The two candidates – the third on the stage, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, is barely registering – have combined to give Democrats in the early primary states a pretty clear choice, between a candidate offering only modest change and calculated pragmatism and a populist firebrand. 

“This campaign is about a political revolution,” Mr Sanders said, “to not only elect the president, but to transform this country.” He alleges that the system, including the US Congress – and including Ms Clinton – has been corrupted by big money, the banks and the lobbyists.

“Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do,” Mr Sanders blasted. “The real issue [is that] Congress fails the voters.” They include raising the minimum age, fixing the country’s decrepit infrastructure and giving equal pay to women. As he oft repeats, Mr Sanders takes no money from banks or billionaires.

In a debate that was spikier than those before it, Mr Sanders said Ms Clinton had not only taken campaign donations from Goldman Sachs, which recently has had to pay a $5m fine for malfeasance, but also $600,000 in speaker fees in a single year. Unable to answer the allegation directly, she fell back again on Mr Obama: “The comments that Senator Sanders has made... don’t just affect me, I can take that, but he’s criticised President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street. And President Obama has led our country so I’m going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the financial industry, and getting results.”

Hillary Clinton is haunted by memories of 2008 when Mr Obama stunned her in Iowa, winning the state’s caucuses (Getty)

As to her suggestion that he meant to tear up Obamacare, he replied “nonsense”. However, he was forced to concede that his plan to provide healthcare “for every man, woman and child as a right”, essentially by extending the existing Medicare and Medicaid federally funded insurance programmes for the retired and the poor, to all Americans, would necessitate small tax increases, an extremely tricky political proposition even if it’s true that eliminating private insurance premiums would more than offset them. 

In the event she fails to prevail in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Ms Clinton is also gambling that wearing the Obama mantle will endear her to African-American voters, who may prove a crucial bulwark when the action switches to South Carolina, which will hold its Democratic primary in mid-February, and several other Deep South states which will vote all at once on 1 March. 

At the debate on Sunday Mr Sanders was asked by moderators from NBC News to explain how he was going to make up what appears to be a huge deficit among minority voters, African-American and Hispanic.  

“When the African-American community becomes familiar with my Congressional record and with our agenda and with our views on the economy and criminal justice, just as the general population has become more supportive so will the African-American community, so will the Latino community,” Mr Sanders averred. “We have the momentum. We’re on a path to a victory.”

He probably will only be proven right if he blasts Ms Clinton away first in this state on 1 February and then in New Hampshire. They are states light on minority voters and heavy on young, and liberal whites who, for now, seem energised by his call to revolution.