The recent debate over the Iranian nuclear threat and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's scheduled speech to Congress on this issue is a perfect example of this new Democratic dynamic. The Democratic party has long been strongly supportive of Israel, but thanks to Obama's pursuit of a deal with Iran, relations between this White House and Israel have hit historic lows. Democrats are now presented with an uncomfortable choice: Back Obama and his aggressive diplomatic push with Iran, or support the Israeli prime minister's speech to Congress raising questions about Iran's intentions.
In the past, the invitation of the Israeli prime minister to speak wouldn't have been nearly as controversial—even so close to an election. Obama knows that. And he's using this episode and his leverage as president to get his rank-and-file members to be less instinctively supportive of the Jewish state. It's having some effect: Most African-American Democrats and many progressive members of the party—Obama's base—have said they're not attending. Even several Jewish Democratic members haven't committed to doing so.
This is what Obama's former chief strategist David Axelrod meant when he wrote about the president's desire to have so-called "Bulworth moments" after being reelected in his new book. Translated into political terms, it means pushing his party to be more outspoken on sensitive issues, even when they may not be comfortable doing so. Challenging Israel was one of the president's top second term priorities, according to Axelrod. The worsening relationship between this administration and Israel was as much the president's preconceived plan as the result of a protocol breach.
Or take construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been indefinitely delayed by this administration, with shifting rationales for doing so over time. The project has long held overwhelming public support, including from a plurality of Democrats. It's evident by now that the ongoing postponements are a result of the president's true-blue opposition to the project, not out of fidelity to the legal process, where the challenges have all run their course.
There's been no signal from the White House that the president wants to make a deal involving Keystone, despite speculation that he could use the project as leverage for another Democratic priority such as infrastructure spending. One of the president's environmental allies, the National Resources Defense Council's Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, told NPR last week that "I actually can't imagine a scenario in which the president allows this project to go forward."
Under a different Democratic president, it's likely Keystone wouldn't even be a polarizing issue. A March 2014 Pew poll found that a 49-percent plurality of Democratic voters support the Keystone pipeline, including 40 percent of self-described liberals. Hillary Clinton has doggedly avoided taking sides on the issue, not wanting to pick a fight with the White House. But only 16 percent of House Democrats and 20 percent of Senate Democrats voted to approve the pipeline, meaning it's just shy of a supermajority that could override a presidential veto.