Will Obama's rift with the left matter?
The left is hopping mad, not just that Obama cut a tax-cut deal with Republicans, but that he didn't put up much of a fight. But the breach may help him woo back independent voters in time for the 2012 election.
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The left’s litany of complaints has only grown since candidate Obama faced the reality of governing. He gave up on including a “public option” – a publicly run health insurance plan – in his health-care reform. He has escalated the war in Afghanistan and failed to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. He has proposed a pay freeze for federal workers. He has concluded a South Korean free-trade accord that some Democrats say will cost Americans jobs. He set up a debt commission that proposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare.Skip to next paragraph
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“The big question for progressives is, where is he going to draw the line?” says Robert Borosage of the liberal Institute for America’s Future. “If he’s going to simply compromise, then first he’s going to get rolled, and he’ll get rolled worse and worse over time.”
Such talk seemed to infuriate the president at a Dec. 7 press conference, in which he called liberal complainers “sanctimonious,” with purist positions that would produce no victories for the American people. “Look, I’ve got a bunch of lines in the sand,” Obama said, starting with preventing tax cuts for top earners from becoming permanent, extending middle-class tax cuts, and prolonging unemployment benefits.
Growing GOP opposition to the tax-cut deal supports Obama’s contention that he wasn’t “rolled” by Republicans, and that they made concessions, too. Democrats in Congress are continuing to come out against the tax deal, saying they’re feeling railroaded into something on which they weren’t consulted. Vice President Joe Biden has made multiple trips to Capitol Hill to try to convince Democrats that Obama hasn’t betrayed them. In the end, even Democratic opponents of the proposal, such as Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, predict it will pass.
For Obama, the ultimate hit from the left would be a serious primary challenge, which history shows is devastating to a president running for reelection. Just ask the last four one-term presidents, all of whom faced primary challenges that hurt them in the general election (or, in President Lyndon Johnson’s case, led him to drop out altogether).
Rabbi Michael Lerner, a liberal activist and magazine editor, has suggested that a primary challenger from the left would pressure Obama to adopt more progressive positions and thus rally his base.
But other left-wing activists don’t want to go so far on the “or else” aspect of their disaffection. Ruben of Moveon.org says liberals aren’t ready to abandon Obama by supporting a primary challenger, because there’s “too much at stake.” Instead, progressives want the “old Obama” back, says Ruben. “That means not giving up on him, but also not giving him a pass.”