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Obama’s Progressives Problem

The split between President Obama and his liberal base continues to widen. Yesterday I wrote about the criticisms directed at the president by the New York Times‘s Paul Krugman. Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect, has leveled his own blast in the Huffington Post.

According to Kuttner, “I cannot recall a president who generated so much excitement as a candidate but who turned out to be such a political dud as chief executive.” Like many of his co-ideologists, Kuttner pins much of the blame on Obama’s failure to communicate just how dreadful the GOP is. The president didn’t sufficiently frighten voters enough. Mr. Obama, who during the 2010 campaign referred to his opponents as “enemies,” wasn’t enough of a “fighter.” The losses among seniors was “sheer political malpractice” and “just stupefying.”

Obama is “fast becoming more albatross than ally,” according to Kuttner, who believes the task of progressives is to “step into the leadership vacuum that Obama has left, and fashion a compelling narrative about who and what are destroying America.” He hopes progressives can “move from disillusion to action and offer the kind of political movement and counter-narrative that the President should have been leading.”

Mr. Kuttner’s counsel is wrong on several different levels. The problem Democrats faced was not (as many of us continue to point out) a communications problem; it was a facts-on-the-ground problem, a governing problem. By a wide margin, the public believes the country is on the wrong track and has lost considerable confidence in Obama’s agenda and ability to lead. The president has compounded his problems by incompetence.

But Kuttner is kidding himself if he thinks progressives can create a “counter-narrative” and fill the “leadership vacuum” that Obama has left. For good or ill, the president is the face of a party and, in the case of Obama, a movement (liberalism). So long as he occupies the Oval Office, no compelling counter-narrative is possible. With one exception: a challenge to Obama from the left.

Kuttner doubts such a challenge makes much sense, and I happen to agree with him. But clearly his head is overruling his heart, at least for now. Here’s the thing to watch for, though: the left’s unhappiness with Obama is likely to accelerate rather than decelerate, in part because Obama’s most liberal days as president are behind him and in part because, in Kuttner’s words, “as President Obama gears up for a re-election battle in 2012, the economy is unlikely to be much different than the one that sank the Democrats in 2010.”

If those two conditions are in place, liberal disenchantment with Obama, which is on the rise, will explode. Their hearts will overrule their heads. Progressives will be desperate to detach themselves from Obama. And out of this could emerge a primary challenger. Right now, that’s not a likelihood; but I suspect we’re closer to that point than many people now assume.


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