Obama's Battle With the Liberal Wing of the Democratic Party

There are some signs that Obama is starting to generate serious opposition from his own party.

President Barack Obama with Sonia Sotomayor, his nominee for the Supreme Court.

President Barack Obama with Sonia Sotomayor, his nominee for the Supreme Court.

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Four decades ago, the liberal, antiwar wing of the Democratic Party helped to force President Lyndon B. Johnson from office. Specifically, Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968 in large part because of rising primary challenges and increasingly vitriolic demonstrations against him. One chant that was heard often at anti-Vietnam War rallies was "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

The level of anger now is nowhere close to that level, but there are warning signs that President Obama is starting to generate serious opposition on the fiery left. There is increasing unease about his sending 21,000 more troops into Afghanistan, which some compare to the early escalations in Vietnam. There is disquiet that Obama has abandoned his promise to release photos showing brutal interrogations of suspected terrorists. There is consternation that he is moving toward using military tribunals to prosecute some terrorists, that he has not banned assault weapons, and that he has not acted aggressively enough to protect a woman's right to have an abortion. Many liberals are also unhappy that Obama shows no interest in a "single payer" healthcare system in which the government would take the lead in guaranteeing adequate medical treatment. Among the groups that have been ratcheting up their criticism of Obama are the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Public Citizen, and members of the 77-member congressional Progressive Caucus. 

But despite the disappointment in some quarters, most liberal Democrats have been giving President Obama a pass on his centrist policies, and he still enjoys high approval ratings from the public. The question is whether the overall patience of leaders and voters on the left will last much longer.

White House strategists express confidence that they can keep most liberals in line for the foreseeable future. One reason is that Americans on the left have such lengthy wish lists on issues ranging from healthcare reform to legalizing gay marriage. They don't want to create any permanent break with Obama.

And White House officials say this core of the Democratic Party, with some exceptions, will continue to give its president the benefit of the doubt. They point to a meeting that Obama held with the Progressive Caucus in late April. "It was very cordial," recalls one attendee. "The sense I got from that meeting was that there was a clear desire to work through their differences and try to find compromises. There were no flash points."

It appears that after eight years of a Republican in the White House, liberals are willing to muffle their dissent. "There is such an overriding sense of relief that it's Obama and not George W. Bush in the White House," says Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster. "There is a pretty strong inclination to cut him a lot of slack." Garin also says that liberals "may say he is not tough enough on the banks or that he's keeping the troops in [Iraq] too long and not delivering quickly enough on 'don't ask, don't tell' [to change policy and allow gays to serve openly in the military]. But they are still delighted and thrilled that he is president of the United States." It also helps in muting opposition that Obama and White House officials are reaching out regularly to inform liberal leaders of what Obama is doing and to get feedback. The president's speech Thursday defending his plans to close the Guantánamo Bay prison—a move that is widely supported on the left—was part of that outreach.

White House advisers add that Obama will be pushed only so far to the left, and with good reason. Only 19 percent of Americans, after all, identify themselves as liberal, compared with 36 percent who say they are moderate and 41 percent who say they are conservative, according to the latest poll by Democracy Corps, a Democratic think tank.

Still, the next few months will be a time of testing. How many compromises will Obama accept on healthcare and on legislation designed to limit global warming and reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil? How far will he go in courting conservatives on issues ranging from national security to abortion? Is he sliding ever deeper into a morass in Afghanistan, as LBJ did in Vietnam early in his presidency?