The Big Liberal Comeback

Obama is increasingly exerting his political will to set up Democrats for years to come.

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"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.

The political right attracted lots of media attention at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference because of all the soul-searching about why Republican nominee Mitt Romney got shellacked in the last presidential election.

But what about the liberals? How are they doing?

The answer is that the left feels newly empowered and increasingly aggressive.

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A big reason is that President Barack Obama is taking more liberal positions and letting his instincts show more than he did during his first term. During those four years, he was wary of seeming too left, which in the past has damaged Democratic candidates. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary at the time, even criticized what he called the "professional left" that always seemed to be making unreasonable demands on the White House.

But since his re-election, President Obama has taken a more liberal course. He is calling for more government activism to cure society's wrongs and to help the middle class, insisting on higher taxes for the rich and big corporations, pushing for stronger gun control measures and endorsing same-sex marriage. His State of the Union address in January gave liberals cause to think that the president would aggressively march leftward more than ever.

And the left is ratcheting up its demands.

The Congressional Black Caucus wants more African-Americans named to the cabinet. Latinos want comprehensive immigration reform. Environmentalists want more federal action to limit climate change, such as regulations to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. Organized labor wants more action to protect workers, and they were heartened last week when Obama named Tom Perez, who is popular with unions and civil rights activists, as his new secretary of labor. Anti-war activists want a faster U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The list goes on.

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Prior to Obama's re-election, liberals "didn't want to hurt the guy," says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker, "and now that the election is over they believe it's OK to put pressure on."

Some liberals, such as the editors of the influential website, The Daily Kos, argue that one of Obama's most important legacies would be to create the conditions for a liberal Democrat to be elected president in 2016. This would amount to a third Obama term, the Kos editors argue, and would cement in place many liberal programs including the health care law enacted during Obama's first term.

Left-leaning strategists say another important long-range contribution would be for Obama to name liberals to the Supreme Court when vacancies occur, in an effort to turn the court in a more progressive direction.

Not that Obama is willing to do whatever liberals want. He realizes there are limits to what the country will accept on gun control, raising taxes and other issues. "His heart tells him to go in a more liberal direction and his brain tells him there are some very considerable obstacles to achieving liberal goals," says Baker.

But the political environment is considered friendly enough to liberals that a few stars of the left are already assessing the 2016 campaign. Many Democrats see an opportunity for an outright liberal to win. The possibilities include Vice President Joe Biden, and Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., Martin O'Malley, D-Md., party strategists say.

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But the top Democrat for 2016, according to the opinion polls, is former Secretary of State and ex-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. She says she isn't planning to run, but she is very popular with a wide swath of the Democratic Party, including liberals. This week, she endorsed same-sex marriage, which will strengthen her standing among gays, who are important activists, donors and voters in Democratic politics.

So while the conservatives debate each other about how they can take back the White House, liberals believe that they are in the midst of a resurgence. They feel they have a friend in Barack Obama who will move with conviction and dispatch on much of their agenda. And they appear to be correct in their assumption that Obama is at heart a "progressive." Now that he has been liberated from another re-election campaign, it's likely that he will act on those instincts more than ever.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at, and followed on Facebook and Twitter.