A Primary Challenge to Obama?

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The apoplexy of loud liberals probably won't be enough to spur a credible primary challenge to President Obama. That's because Obama enjoys extremely high approval ratings among African Americans, who are not likely to desert him for anyone else, because the White House and the Democratic National Committee have tended quite carefully to Obama's high-dollar fundraising network, and because Republican partisanship is likely to magnify the differences between Obama and Republicans that many liberal Democratic activists purport not to see.

A number of high-profile progressive politicians, ranging from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to media figures like Keith Olbermann and Jane Hamsher are at their wits' end about what they call the "tax cut sell-out."    

MoveOn asked SurveyUSA to poll self-identified Obama donors and found that 70 percent of them oppose the tax cuts.

Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., an early Obama congressional supporter, told Fox News this week that he "has to pick the best amongst those who are running and it may or may not be President Barack Obama's reelection." Message sent.

The progressive infrastructure, which has proved capable of influencing House and Senate races, and which buttressed Democrat Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid, is larger, more vocal, and about as united as can be. They also have a coherent case against: what they see as Obama's betrayals on Bush-era national security policies, his decision to extend the war in Afghanistan (even though he promised to fight that war during his campaign), and his seeming refusal to fight issues that serve to clearly distinguish the Democrats from Republicans.

Many of the likely suspects have unequivocally denied interest. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., whose concession speech on November 2 sounded to many like a shot across the bow of the White House, had his chief of staff issue a statement flatly denying he will run in 2012. Feingold, 57, is personally close to Obama, and although he's long set his sights on the White House, is not interested in being the left's sacrificial donkey.

Dean, who retains a solid core of support and whose campaign paved the way for Democratic victories in 2006 and for Obama's campaign style in 2008, also said he won't run. Perennial candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has likewise disclaimed interest.

The "primary" card, however, is useful. It conveys maximum anger and carries with it an implicit threat. Even if the left can't find someone who could beat Obama, they could make his reelection campaign much more challenging, and certainly create the type of distractions that a sitting president does not need. For liberals, this might not lead to disaster, especially if it looks like Republicans will nominate a candidate like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom they believe is easily beatable. (Many Republican strategists believe that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was assisted in his 2008 primary surge by Republican primary voters prospectively assessing whether other candidates could beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.)

A primary challenge for Obama would be a cold shower of sorts. In the Washington Post, Rabbi Michael Lerner, a liberal commentator, writes that a primary would force Obama " toward much more progressive positions and make him a more viable 2012 candidate." He continues: "Far from weakening his chances for reelection, this kind of progressive primary challenge could save Obama if he moves in the desired direction. And if he holds firm to his current track, he's a goner anyway."

Lerner's assumption is based on the premise that one reason Democrats lost so many House seats in November was somehow because Obama wasn't strong enough. That's more than disputable. But it is also based on the observation that Democratic policies always tend to be more popular than Democratic politicians. If only a candidate would draw a bright line between Red and Blue, Purple Americans who support progressive stands on issues would find their voices, and a bandwagon effect would develop.

Safe to say, Obama and his political team do not make the same conclusion. Obama's staff identifies as hard core Democrats down the line, but they often talk about a reality principle. The vast majority of those who support Democratic policies do not support the type of politics that tends to accompany them, nor do they have any investment in a single, coherent party platform or world view. Obama himself was never really a Democratic activist, and his campaign in 2008 did its best to marginalize the power of interest groups that sustain the party.

Politics aside, the advantages of incumbency are still significant. Five presidents have faced intra-party challengers since 1952, and none of them have been successful, despite moments of frisson in the races. Also weighty is the principle of fear: Obama advisers aren't themselves the type who threaten, but plenty of Obama fundraisers can be relied upon to convey the message that while complaining about Obama is acceptable, making any moves that weaken his presidency is not. Obama controls the DNC, the primary process, has allies among most of the state chairs, and his Organizing for America group keeps close watch on county-level political activists.

Then there's the problem (for potential challengers) of black voters. They are Obama's most supportive constituency, and there is no sign that they view his policies as harmful or hurtful. Any credible candidate would need to come up with an argument that so far has not escaped the boundaries of the brains of white liberals.

A candidate might try to rally Latinos on immigration and other issues, but the jujitsu involved would be daunting. Likewise, Obama remains popular among most elements of the Democratic Party. There is a disconnect between what the White House calls the "professional left" and the Democratic base. No question that the degree of overlap between these two groups is significant, and pounding from progressives can lower the president's standing among those who don't pay close attention to politics.

Obama's most significant electoral challenge in 2012, regardless of the Republican candidate, is the map. And that's where his campaign--which doesn't yet exist except for an outline on a white board somewhere in Washington--will focus its attention. White House advisers assume that as Republicans show their wares, Democrats who are anxious about Obama will return to the fold. They see Republicans as the source for opportunities for Obama to remind Democrats that he is one of them, even if he doesn't always act like it. 

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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