As President Obama works on last-minute tweaks to his State of the Union address, there are growing signs of a simmering rebellion among moderates against the Democratic leadership.
"The moderate wing of the Democratic Party is very nervous, and they're starting to defect," political strategist Mark McKinnon, vice chairman of Austin, Texas-based Public Strategies Inc., told Newsmax. "They're not going to win any of these key pieces of legislation that are important to Obama's legacy unless they can get those moderates aboard."
Since Sen.-elect Scott Brown's upset victory in Massachusetts last week, the president has been taking fire from all sides. House Democrats have voiced frustration that the president hasn't pushed harder for a healthcare compromise. On the right, Weekly Standard columnist Fred Barnes wrote Tuesday that Obama's presidency "is teetering on the edge of a crackup and only Obama can pull it to safety."
So far, those looking for Obama to follow the example of former President Clinton and tack to the political center have been disappointed. Immediately after Brown's win, the president expressed a willingness to pare down healthcare reform in order to win a bipartisan compromise. On Sunday, however, his top aides backed off of that notion, insisting that Obamacare is still on the table.
The Gallup polling organization reported Monday that President Obama has become the most polarizing first-year president ever. Gallup states the gap between Obama's job-approval rating among Democrats (88 percent) and his average job-approval rating from Republicans (23 percent) "is easily the largest for any president in his first year in office."
The president's response to the recent political setbacks: Ratcheting up the populist rhetoric – e.g., telling banks, "We want our money back and we're going to get it." He also announced a freeze on a small fraction of federal spending beginning in 2011.
Those measures have done little to quell the moderates' unrest, however. Thirteen Democrats have joined GOP efforts to end the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Democratic leaders have expressed an interest in using TARP funds to help defray the cost of another round of economic stimulus, to counter unemployment. But moderates worry the political price may be too high.
Politico reports that there is "a growing lack of confidence within Democratic circles over the Obama administration's ability to control the political message more effectively than Republicans."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, meanwhile, has enlisted three moderate Democratic senators — Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — to support a resolution opposing the EPA designation of carbon dioxide a dangerous pollutant.
Murkowski's spokesman on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Robert Dillon, tells Newsmax that moderate Democrats are worried about "executive-branch overreach," adding the administration appears "to be playing Russian roulette with the economy, and that has a lot of people on both sides of the aisle upset."
Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., appears to be the latest moderate Democratic casualty. In announcing that he won't run for re-election, Berry told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that he repeatedly warned the White House 2010 is shaping up as a 1994-style debacle for Democrats.
"They just kept telling us how good it was going to be," Berry said. "The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, 'Well, the big difference here and in '94 was you've got me.'"
Presidential charisma notwithstanding, Democrats are bracing for the likelihood of more congressional retirements in the weeks ahead. And as prominent candidates such as Delaware's Beau Biden opt out of running for higher office, the uphill climb for Democrats in November grows even steeper.
The president's decision to ratchet up the populist rhetoric is "a bad sign," McKinnon said.
"To the extent we've seen populist campaigns, most of them have failed," he says. "Al Gore tried it. Pat Buchanan tried it. Populism really at its core [means] campaigns that go after big business. I think most commonsense folks today in America understand that businesses big and small are responsible for jobs in this country, and we're not going to get more jobs by attacking business."
McKinnon, who helped create former President George W. Bush's successful ad campaigns in 2000 and 2004, remains optimistic that the president will begin to govern more from the center. He believes Team Obama's political instincts are essentially pragmatic.
"This country, despite the outcome of last year's election, is largely conservative," McKinnon said. "They are concerned about government spending, about government overreach, and it's time for President Obama to show some humility. And the most important thing is to show he's listening and he's learned from what voters are saying in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
"If they respond by tacking leftward to their progressive constituency then I think that's precisely the wrong lesson," he said. "That's not what America wants.
McKinnon described the administration's shift to populist rhetoric as "a political response, not a governing response."
"You know, this is an administration that says they don't govern by polls, but this type of rhetoric it seems to me is very poll driven," he said.
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