Presidents who alienate their core constituencies often jeopardize their political survival. That's what could be happening to President Obama as he assesses his prospects for re-election in 2012.
Voters repudiated Obama, the Democratic Party, and its policies in the November 2 midterm elections, and this has unleashed a torrent of second-guessing about what went wrong. Even Obama supporters admit that he focused too much on overhauling the healthcare system when voters wanted him to emphasize job creation. And it's generally agreed that he failed to show everyday Americans that he truly understood them and cared about their problems. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Obama now acknowledges that the presidency isn't just about passing legislation, it's also about explaining an agenda in a compelling way and demonstrating empathy. But what he has not addressed sufficiently is the growing disenchantment within his party's liberal base. Activists on the left are unhappy with many aspects of Obama's administration. In particular, they don't like his reluctance to confront the Republicans on a variety of issues. Contrary to the analysis of conservatives and many media pundits, they say Obama hasn't pushed hard enough for activist government and for limits on the power and privileges of the rich and of corporate interests such as Big Oil and Big Insurance. And liberal activists say Obama has tried to make too many deals with the Republicans, even though they have attempted to block him at nearly every turn.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recently expressed frustration that what Obama advisers consider unfair criticism from the "professional left" must be taken seriously. For one thing, liberals are vital in the presidential nomination process. Democratic strategists point out that it was antiwar liberals who helped propel Obama to the Democratic nomination in 2008 on the strength of their opposition to the Iraq war and Obama's pledge to end it.
It's now Afghanistan that is animating the left. Although the antiwar movement is pleased that Obama has withdrawn most U.S. troops from Iraq, activists are upset that he has escalated the conflict in Afghanistan. Obama has promised to begin removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan next July if conditions permit, but liberals are worried that the military may persuade him to delay or cancel the withdrawals. And conservatives see an opening. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for example, recently told a security conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that a continued U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is "one area where Republicans feel comfortable standing by the president." Such a potential partnership further inflames the left.
Opposition to the Afghanistan war is so potent that it could cause trouble for Obama as he seeks his party's renomination in 2012. "It could be a real motivator and produce a primary challenge," says a prominent Democratic strategist. Among those mentioned as possible candidates are former Democratic National Committee chairman and 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, who lost his bid for re-election on November 2, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who ran in 2008. Dean denies any interest in running, and neither Feingold nor Kucinich has shown signs of getting into the race at this point. But all that could change if Obama continues to look shaky in the polls and if the antiwar movement believes it needs to take a dramatic stand against Obama's policies. Republican pollster Bill McInturff, a savvy observer, speculated that the conditions are ripe for such a contest.
An intraparty challenge to Obama could be devastating because it would divide the Democrats and call attention to his vulnerabilities. Two examples are instructive. President Gerald Ford alienated much of his conservative base and was challenged for the Republican nomination by Ronald Reagan in 1976. Ford eked out a win for the nomination but lost the general election to Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Carter alienated much of his liberal base and was challenged for the Democratic nomination by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Carter won the nomination but lost the fall campaign to Reagan.