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Politics

Sending a Message to Obama

The president has a problem -- with his own party. Will liberals test him?

Don’t be surprised if President Obama faces a challenge from the left when he seeks the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2012.

The way many liberals see it, Obama didn’t bring the change he campaigned for in 2008. Instead, they argue, he changed. His move to the center as his bid for a second term nears has left them feeling lonely.

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Liberals in Congress haven’t abandoned Obama, but they are frustrated, feeling marginalized by his attempts to appeal to moderate Democrats and newly emboldened Republicans in Congress.

The president’s defenders say Obama is merely being realistic in scaling back some of his goals and compromising with the GOP.

Those in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, though, argue that Obama has given them nothing in return for their support, which helped propel him from the Senate to the White House two years ago. On their scorecard, Obama ditched the public option on the health care bill, pulled back on climate change, stopped talking about immigration and, most recently, gave up trying to block an extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Many of them equate the latest move with surrender, even though the deal he made will give liberals a win on extending unemployment benefits.

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So there is plenty of talk about challenging him in the Democratic primaries, not so much to beat him, but to remind him that the progressive wing of the party lives on and that he needs to pay attention to it.

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To be clear, the president seems certain to win his party’s nomination again in 2012. There’s little denying the power and influence of a sitting president, even one battling falling public approval ratings, an economy that’s been slow to bounce back and partisan gridlock. Even Jimmy Carter, in 1980, was able to overcome dismal approval ratings, soaring inflation, exploding gas prices and the Iran hostage crisis to beat back a challenge for the Democratic nomination from Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

This time, there’s no one of Kennedy’s stature on the horizon to challenge Obama. But the prospect of a challenge from liberals means he’ll have to fight a bit. It also underscores the divide in the Democratic Party. Despite holding the White House and controlling the Senate, the party is split in many places, and for many reasons.

There is much talk in Washington that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) might carry the liberal banner in the primaries. Though he recently lost his bid for a new term, he remains a favorite of progressives. Other possible prospects include former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004, and a handful of House members, including Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Lynn Woolsey of California and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

The House trio represents states that are rich in delegates, so Obama might be forced to move a bit to the left to avoid the embarrassment of one of them racking up some significant support.

Even though he’s a shoo-in to win the Democratic nomination, the potential challenge from the left leaves Obama with a general election dilemma: If he disses the left too much, liberal voters might stay home in droves in the fall. But if he gives the left too much, he’ll hand the GOP ammunition to use against him.

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