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.