WASHINGTON: Thwarted presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders arrived at the White House Thursday for talks with President Barack Obama on how to unite the Democratic party after a testy primary campaign.
Obama is to play peace broker, coaxing Sanders to recognize Hillary Clinton as the party's presidential nominee and focus with her on beating Republican rival Donald Trump in November.
The two men strode along the West Wing colonnade, both laughing at one point, with the president placing his hand on Sanders' back as he opened the door to the Oval Office.
Obama is expected to tread softly -- "hearing Sanders out," according to a Democratic source familiar with preparations for the White House meeting -- and offering him a very public show of respect for his insurgent campaign.
"I thought that Bernie Sanders brought enormous energy and new ideas," Obama said Wednesday. "I thought it made Hillary a better candidate."
"My hope is, is that over the next couple of weeks, we're able to pull things together," Obama said, recalling his own bitter campaign rivalry with Clinton in 2008.
"What happens during primaries, you get a little ouchy. Everybody does."
Sanders told his defiant supporters that "the struggle continues" Tuesday, even after crushing defeats to Clinton in California and New Jersey.
But there is unlikely to be fist-thumping or angry demands for Sanders to face political reality and drop out.
"I think there is a recognition that this is emotionally very challenging," said the Democratic source, who asked not to be named.
"Sanders has poured his energy into this, there is a tremendous amount of pressure. It's like a battleship -- it takes a while to change course."
Sanders and Obama have spoken three times in the last month and are said to have a good rapport.
Obama was always certain to back Clinton, his former secretary of state, but he has so far refrained from making any formal endorsement.
"I think she is whip smart. She is tough." Obama told The Tonight Show.
From relative obscurity, Sanders garnered 12 million of the primary campaign's 27 million votes.
He tapped a deep well of anger among young voters who were the lifeblood of Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012.
The risk for Clinton is that Sanders overplays his hand or feels shunned -- and continues his insurgency.
"Clinton finds herself in a shaky position she could not have imagined last year," said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"Weakened by the self-inflicted wounds of her email controversy and her inability to generate enthusiasm in major parts of the Democratic coalition, Clinton has been forced to spend precious time, money, and energy fighting Sanders right to the end."
Some Sanders supporters would indeed like him to battle all the way to the party convention in Philadelphia next month.
For diehard Sanders supporters, Clinton -- the former first lady, secretary of state and US senator -- is the epitome of a political establishment that has failed the people.
More pragmatic supporters are pressing for Sanders to leverage his newfound political clout.
They would like to see the party platform overhauled and reforms to the next nominating process in 2020 -- opening primaries to independent voters and curbing the role of bigwig "superdelegates."
Critically, Sanders supporters also want to see Clinton embrace more left-leaning policies, according to Neil Sroka of Democracy for America, a political action committee that endorsed Sanders.
"The degree to which the party unites behind Secretary Clinton is ultimately going to depend on the degree to which she picks up and embraces the political revolution and runs on the populist progressive issues that have been defining the primary," he said.