A weakened president in an ailing economy would ordinarily invite a stiff primary challenge. But so far nobody has made noises about taking on President Obama despite mounting frustration with his leadership, or lack thereof.
Democrats are furious that he got rolled by the Tea Party Republicans. They think he could have raised the debt ceiling on his own, invoking the Fourteenth Amendment, and instead hid behind lawyers, fearing a legal challenge and settling for far less than he should.
The list of grievances doesn’t end there, with Obama’s conciliatory approach at the core of the discontent. Some Democrats are still yearning for Hillary Clinton, and want Obama to dump Joe Biden and put her on the ticket. They think Obama is not tough enough, that she would have been a better president, but few want her—or anybody else —challenging the incumbent. Even left-wing firebrands like Dennis Kucinich and former senator Russ Feingold aren’t musing about mounting such an effort.
Nor is there much appetite on the left. A Pew survey finds that while the Democratic base has become increasingly disillusioned with Obama, just 32 percent of rank-and-file Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would like to see a primary fight, while 59 percent say they would not.
This is a pragmatic decision, given the state of the economy and an empowered right-wing opposition. “The president has very little margin for error if he’s going to have a realistic chance of getting reelected, and that’s abundantly clear to everyone in the party,” says veteran political handicapper Charlie Cook. Democrats look at the Tea Party and are horrified by the prospect of a Republican Party driven by its furthermost fringe capturing the White House. The two presidents in modern times defeated for reelection—Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican George H.W. Bush—each faced spirited primary challenges that divided their party and drained support in the November election.
Primary fights rarely end with the unseating of a president. Even Ronald Reagan couldn’t take down Gerald Ford, an unelected president. “You can do damage, but it’s unprecedented to knock a president off,” says Sam Popkin, a noted political scientist who teaches at the University of California, San Diego.
“Who wants to feel responsible for costing the first African-American president his reelection?”
So what’s the point? For Ted Kennedy and the progressive challenge to Carter in 1980, it was about reasserting the liberal Democratic agenda that Carter, a Southern moderate focused on fiscal discipline, seemed to be eroding. The discontent then was not unlike what progressives are experiencing today. It’s the passionate base, hear me roar! The difference now there is no Kennedy heir-apparent figure on the horizon, and we’re talking about the first African-American occupant of the White House in a party identified with civil rights. “Who wants to feel responsible for costing the first African-American president his reelection?” says Cook. What’s more, blacks vote heavily in key primary states.
Anyone contemplating a run against Obama must consider the consequences of not only defeating the president, but the likely repercussions to his or her own career. “If he were white, he would have a progressive challenger,” says Bill Schneider of the Democratic group Third Way. Because Obama is this historic figure, challenging him would hamper the prospects of anyone who wants a future in elective Democratic politics. “Blacks would be deeply offended by a challenge, and that’s no way to score points in the Democratic Party,” says Schneider. African-Americans are the Democrats’ most loyal constituency, and while they too are disappointed in what Obama has been able to accomplish, they are not going to abandon him.
“There’s a deep frustration without a solution,” says Popkin. “What candidate is able to say he will do more, or fix it? All they can say is, I would have been meaner or louder or I would do better saying no to Republicans." The voices of protest bump up against the stubborn reality of divided government. It’s possible, but not probable, that Democrats will get the 24 seats they need to regain control of the House, but there’s a stronger possibility the Republicans will take the Senate; they only need four seats. “If they have the presidency, then the Tea Party is running the country," says Schneider, and Democrats "can’t take any chance that will happen."
Ralph Nader is just about the only national figure predicting Obama will face a challenge, and that’s in part because he’s actively trying to recruit candidates. “The idea is to cast a huge net and hope that a slate might emerge,” he told me. Nader is one of 10 signers on a letter going out to upwards of 150 potential challengers, described as people with stature in government, labor and even some business leaders. “Nobody’s going to beat this guy in the Democratic primaries,” says Nader. “That’s not the goal. The goal is to turn him around and make him face up to his promises of 2008.” Ideally, several people would step forward and force Obama to debate on Democratic turf—the minimum wage, labor rights, shifting the tax burden to Wall Street. “Otherwise he’s just responding to the crazy Republicans,” says Nader.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben is among those being contacted, though he responded in an e-mail he didn’t know anything about it, and may have missed it because he’s “deep in the weeds” organizing two weeks of civil disobedience beginning this month outside the White House to resist a proposed oil pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to Texas. “We’re billing it not so much as a protest,” McKibben wrote, “as to show that there is enormous support for him returning to the Obama of that election —the one who, among other things, said that with his ascension ‘the rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet begin to heal.’ And this is the perfect issue to find out if that guy’s still there, because he gets to make the call on the pipeline all by himself, with no interference from Congress.”
A telltale sign: McKibben and other demonstrators will be wearing Obama buttons that say 2008, not 2012, as they try to reclaim the ideals of his candidacy. They hope to remind Obama who he is, or who he said he was, without the club, or the threat, of a formal challenge.