We have not in our lifetimes seen a president in this position. He spent his first year losing the center, which elected him, and his second losing his base, which is supposed to provide his troops. There isn’t much left to lose! Which may explain Tuesday’s press conference.
President Obama was supposed to be announcing an important compromise, as he put it, on tax policy. Normally a president, having agreed with the opposition on something big, would go through certain expected motions. He would laud the specific virtues of the plan, show graciousness toward the negotiators on the other side—graciousness implies that you won—and refer respectfully to potential critics as people who’ll surely come around once they are fully exposed to the deep merits of the plan.
Instead Mr. Obama said, essentially, that he hates the deal he just agreed to, hates the people he made the deal with, and hates even more the people who’ll criticize it. His statement was startling in the breadth of its animosity. Republicans are “hostage takers” who worship a “holy grail” of “tax cuts for the wealthy.” “That seems to be their central economic doctrine.”
As for the left, they ignore his accomplishments and are always looking for “weakness and compromise.” They are “sanctimonious,” “purist,” and just want to “feel good about” themselves. In a difficult world, they cling to their “ideal positions” and constant charges of “betrayals.”
Those not of the left might view all this as straight talk, and much needed. But if you were of the left it would only deepen your anger and sharpen your response. Which it did. “Gettysburg,” “sellout,” “disaster.”
The president must have thought that distancing himself from left and right would make him more attractive to the center. But you get credit for going to the center only if you say the centrist position you’ve just embraced is right. If you suggest, as the president did, that the seemingly moderate plan you agreed to is awful and you’ll try to rescind it in two years, you won’t leave the center thinking, “He’s our guy!” You’ll leave them thinking, “Note to self: Remove Obama in two years.”
In politics, the angry person is generally understood to be the loser, which is why politicians on TV always try not to seem angry. And politics is always, at the end of the day, a game of addition, not subtraction.
Mr. Obama’s problem is not only with the left of his party. Democratic professionals, people who do the work of politics day by day, don’t see him as a bad man or a sellout, but they scratch their heads over him and privately grouse. They don’t understand a Democratic president who, in the midst of a great recession, in our modern welfare state, doesn’t know how to win support! The other night Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, was on “Hardball” sounding reasonable on the subject of Mr. Obama, but I thought his eyes, his visage, his professionally pleasant face were screaming: Those crazy birthers are wrong, he’s not from another country—he’s from another galaxy! He doesn’t do politics like any normal person!
The left has been honestly disappointed in Mr. Obama. He did not come through as they think he should have in myriad ways—the public option, closing Guantanamo, war, now the tax plan. But—and this makes it all more complicated and fascinating—the left does not say Mr. Obama has been revealed to be at heart a conservative, or a Republican. Most of them know he is one of them—his worldview is more or less theirs, his assumptions are theirs. Does anyone doubt he would have included a public option in health care if he thought he could have? He judged that he couldn’t. He didn’t have the numbers in the Senate. It isn’t an argument about philosophy or ideology. It’s only an argument about what’s practical and possible.
Some on the left argue that if only the president had talked more, and more passionately, if he’d worked it harder, he could have brought the country to support leftist programs. But why do they think this? The general public has seen the president out there for two years talking and promoting a generally leftist direction. Voters demonstrated in elections through 2009 and ’10 that a generally leftist direction is not what they want.
All of this—the disenchantment of the left, the confusion of the party’s professionals—has led to increased talk of a primary challenger to Mr. Obama in 2012.
And here too the president’s position would be without parallel.
When Pat Buchanan challenged an incumbent president in his party’s presidential primary in 1992, he was going at George H.W. Bush from the right. Mr. Bush’s base wasn’t the right, it was the party’s center. His support came from people who said not “I am a conservative,” but “I am a Republican.” Mr. Bush wasn’t challenged from his base.
When Ted Kennedy challenged a sitting president of his party in 1980, he was going at Jimmy Carter from the left. But Mr. Carter’s base wasn’t the left, it was more or less in the party’s center.
When Ronald Reagan challenged a sitting president of his party in 1976, he was going at Gerald Ford from the right. Like Mr. Bush, Ford’s base wasn’t the right, it was the party’s establishment. Eugene McCarthy in 1968 the same—he challenged Lyndon Johnson from the left, while Johnson’s base within the party was the establishment.
Modern presidents are never challenged from their base, always by the people who didn’t love them going in. You’re not supposed to get a serious primary challenge from the people who loved you. But that’s the talk of what may happen with Mr. Obama.
The Democratic Party is stuck. Their problem is not, as some have said, that they don’t have anyone of sufficient stature to challenge the president. Russ Feingold and Howard Dean have said they aren’t interested, but a challenger can always be found, or can emerge. If anything marks this political age, it’s that anyone can emerge.
The Democrats’ problem is that most of them know that the person who would emerge, who would challenge Mr. Obama from the left, would never, could never, win the 2012 general election. He’d lose badly and take the party with him. Democratic professionals know the mood of the country. Challenging Mr. Obama from the left would mean definitely losing the presidency, as opposed to probably losing the presidency.
There is only one Democrat who could possibly challenge Mr. Obama for the nomination successfully and win the general election, and that is Hillary Clinton. Who insists she doesn’t want to.
What are the Democrats to do? If you are stuck with a president, you try to survive either with him or, individually, in spite of him. Some Democrats will try to bring him back. How? Who knows. But that will be a great Democratic drama of 2011: Saving Obama.
The White House itself still probably thinks the Republicans can save him, by overstepping, by alienating moderates. But so far, on domestic matters, they’re looking pretty calm and sober. They didn’t crow at the tax compromise, for instance, even though they knew the left is correct: It wasn’t a compromise, it was a bow. To reality, but a bow nonetheless.