2012 Jitters

Why Obama’s Base Won’t Revolt

Gay marriage, Israel, choice—talk is rife of a 2012 primary challenge to Obama from the left, but liberals’ support and fear of GOP extremism mean it won’t happen, says Eric Alterman.

07.27.11 4:38 AM ET

So Obama’s base is “crumbling,” huh? 

What’s the evidence for this? 

Well, Bernie Sanders, the only independent socialist member of the United States Senate, thinks it might be a “good idea” if the president were to face a primary opponent. And if Obama were the leader of America’s socialist movement, he certainly would be—but then he wouldn’t be president. 

What else?

There’s Obama’s job-approval rating, which is awfully low, particularly on the economy. Then again, George W. Bush still gets the majority of the blame for the economy. What’s more, among liberal Democrats and African-Americans, approval for Obama’s record on jobs has also fallen—to slightly more than half among the former and slightly more than half among the latter. Given an unemployment rate of about 10 percent, that strikes me as pretty damn good. I’m not sure even Obama approves of Obama’s record on jobs any more than they do. What’s more, Obama has won the argument for public opinion with Republicans over the debt limit with his “eat your peas” strategy, even if he has not won the hearts of liberals in doing so.

Sanders was undoubtedly correct when he explained that “there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president, who believe that with regard to Social Security and other things, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president, who cannot believe how weak he has been for whatever reason in negotiating with Republicans, and there’s deep disappointment.” But his suggestion that “one of the reasons the president has made the move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him” is hard to countenance, given how far right the Republicans have moved and how successful they have been in bottling up virtually every progressive initiative the president has attempted to undertake (and some he hasn’t).

True, nobody on the left is terribly happy with Obama. Hispanic activists are said to be “unsatisfied.” Jews are said to be kvetching too, though it is really only the machers in the professional Jewish organizations and the big donors who are evincing any genuine unhappiness. Gays wish he would endorse gay marriage. Women are angry about the concessions he made on the choice issue to get his health-care plan passed. And environmentalists are giving him a grade of F for the first term. And I’ve not even mentioned the war in Afghanistan, civil liberties, or Obama’s Bush-like expansion of presidential power. But the fact remains, the president faces no significant opposition from his left and won’t between now and 2012.

There’s no doubt that liberal elites are deeply frustrated with Obama’s willingness to compromise away so much of the New Deal and Great Society legislation that liberals fought so long and hard to enact. As Ed Kilgore argues in a thoughtful Salon piece, “To say that liberal elites are ‘disappointed’ with Obama is a great understatement; terms of moral opprobrium such as ‘betrayal’ and ‘sellout’ are now routinely tossed at the White House.” But for the most part, this anger/impatience has not really trickled down to the hustings, where Obama’s own frustration is likely to be shared, rather than condemned. The anger is confined to the generals and admirals; Obama is doing just fine with the privates, the sergeants, the ensigns, and everybody in between. 

According to CNN, Kilgore notes, “Obama’s approval rating among self-described liberals is ‘only’ 71 percent." Gallup’s latest poll has him at 75 percent approval among liberals. Among "liberal Democrats," Gallup, Kilgore notes, finds Obama’s approval rating to be 85 percent, about where it has remained for this entire year. CNN, he notes, finds Democrats’ approval rating for Obama at 80 percent. Seventy-seven percent say they support his renomination, 20 points higher than Bill Clinton’s support in 1994. 

Think about it. Obama has at least an even chance of reelection, probably better, with an unemployment rate that’s about 25 percent higher than any president to be reelected before him since FDR. Should anyone challenge him in the primaries from the left, this could have the effect of strengthening him with the larger public, who appear to be buying into his “adult” strategy of isolating those in his party who complain from his left, and those on his right in the Republican Party who appear to have taken total leave of their senses, nowhere more than on the question of defaulting on the U.S. government’s obligations. As angry as many liberals may be—and I count myself among them—the fear engendered by the craziness of the current Republican crop of candidates provides a strong corrective to any dreams of mounting anything more than a nuisance candidacy to challenge Obama. Bernie Sanders is up for reelection and is not going to run against him. Neither is Russell Feingold, who is considering another Senate race in Wisconsin. And nobody in Congress is endorsing Sanders’ idea. As Barney Frank puts it, ”I understand the frustration, but acting on that frustration is not a good political strategy.” Maybe Dennis Kucinich will mount a challenge, but only because he’s been redistricted out of his congressional seat and wants to impeach Obama. But seriously, who—besides some Republican consultants eager to use Kucinich’s attacks for their commercials—would care? Ralph Nader?

In the wake of this nonstory, no one seems to notice that one could find almost exactly the same arguments being made against Obama eight months ago in a piece by The New York Times’ Matt Bai. It was an imaginary threat then, and it is an imaginary threat now. Barack Obama is not going to be seriously challenged from his left any more than he is going to be impeached. That journalists are seriously discussing it, alas, is yet another case, as Stephen Colbert put it in another context, of attempting to “scoop reality” by “pulling a news report completely out of your ass.”