Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Obama's Liberal Base Abandoning Him?

President Obama has had a rocky relationship with the base of his party almost from the moment he was elected. In his inaugural address he already drew back from any sweeping calls for a new liberal era. Instead, he spoke of the difficult challenges ahead. Since then, he has, at least in foreign policy, adopted many stands similar to George W. Bush, including approving a surge in Afghanistan, not to mention failing to shut down Guantanamo. The bill of indictment against Obama from the left is long.

Now the debt crisis—and Obama's promises to slash entitlements—is triggering a fresh revolt. The Los Angeles Times' Andrew Malcolm, an adviser to George W. Bush during his days as Texas Governor, declares that support for Obama on the left is crumbling. Obama is trying to appeal to the center again. Malcolm says,

Using political forensics, notice any clues, perhaps telltale code words that reveal to whom he was really addressing his Monday message? Clearly, it wasn't congressional Republicans—or Democrats, for that matter.

The nation's top talker uttered 4,526 words in those remarks. He said "balanced approach" seven times, three times in a single paragraph.

That's the giveaway. Obviously, David Plouffe and the incumbent's strategists have been polling phrases for use in this ongoing debt duel, which is more about 2012 now than 2011. "Balanced approach" is no sweet talk for old Bernie or tea sippers on the other side.

Obama is running for the center already, aiming for the independents who played such a crucial role in his victorious coalition in 2008. They were the first to start abandoning the good ship Obama back in 2009 when all the ex-state senator could do was talk about healthcare, when jobs and the economy were the peoples' priority.

For Obama inking a deal with the GOP to raise the debt ceiling and slash spending is key. For the GOP? Not so much. At least not if it reckons that it will capture the presidency in 2012—a big if. The danger for the GOP is that if it spurns a deal now it will get tagged with the blame for an economic collapse—and Obama will be reelected in 2012 and allow the Bush tax cuts to expire in toto. Which, by the way, would go a long way toward solving the deficit problem. Its effects on the economy are another matter. One way or another the 2012 election will force the electorate to choose between rival visions—between the welfare state and the austerity state. Though it doesn't appear to be a choice that it is all that eager to make. Which, by the way, is the main reason that the Republicans and Democrats aren't able to close on a deal. It isn't simply that Washington has become "partisan." It's always been filled with partisans. The political system simply reflects the country's own indecision. You get the leaders you deserve, as the old saying goes.

What about Malcolm's assessment of the left? The problem for the Left is that it doesn't really have anywhere else to go—unless someone challenges Obama in the primary (unlikely) or runs as a third cadidate (iffy). Memories on the left of the George W. Bush presidency would be stirred up by the Obama campaign. The one thing leftist activists could do is to go nowhere—stay at home, as a form of protest against Obama. For now the Left's grumbling about Obama amounts to no more than an expression of despair.