A Primary Challenge to Obama?

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."

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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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