President Barack Obama is increasingly trapped in a political no-man's land between the moderate center he wants to claim and the activists in his party's left wing who are beginning to blast him openly for his apparent willingness to make concessions to Republicans.
A recent Daily Kos blog, for example, labeled Obama a closet Blue Dog Democrat – a serious pejorative from the left, especially considering that members of the Blue Dog Coalition were savaged in the midterm elections.
Others on the left are calling the president a "proud Clinton Democrat," which is also meant as a slam from progressives.
The latest wedge threatening to divide Obama from his liberal base was the trial balloon floated by Senior White House adviser David Axelrod Thursday, suggesting Obama is ready to drop his opposition to the extension of the Bush-era tax breaks even for those households earning $250,000 or more per year.
"Obama must move to the center," Democratic pollster and Fox News commentator Douglas Schoen tells Newsmax. "He must embrace the deficit commission report and findings, and find a way to separate himself from an increasingly unpopular minority leader [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] who is a drag on his re-election prospects."
But Obama may be unable to disengage his political fortunes from Pelosi, as Schoen says he must, despite the fact that their positions on the issues appear to be increasingly at odds.
Pelosi lambasted the deficit commission proposals that President Obama appears open to considering. And Friday morning, Pelosi stepped her rhetoric against extending the Bush tax cuts, saying they would "heap $700 billion in debt" on voters' backs without creating jobs.
In an indication of the emerging split in the Democratic Party, moderate Democrats, who embrace extension of the Bush tax cuts and cuts in federal spending, have objected to Pelosi's drive to remain her party's leader in the House. Some of them suggest privately that she is too closely identified with big-government policies that contributed to the midterm debacle.
Georgia Democrats Rep. John Barrow and Sanford Bishop became the latest to urge Pelosi to step aside. Bishop said Democrats need a "new face" in the leadership.
Yet in an indication of the delicate tap dance President Obama must conduct, walk, Obama on Friday endorsed Pelosi's bid to continue as Democrats' leader in the House despite the historic "shellacking" her party received on Nov. 2.
“Speaker Pelosi has been an outstanding partner for me,” the president said in response to a question from ABC's Jake Tapper. “[Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid has been a terrific partner in moving some very difficult legislation forward. And I’m looking forward to working with the entire leadership team to continue to make progress on the issues that are important to the American people."
Many analysts believe Obama's decline among independent voters puts the onus on the president to work out a deal with Republicans, in order to back up his post-election remarks that he only expanded government spending in response to emergency circumstances. But it remains unclear how he can make a Clinton-esque move to the center when only a few conservatives and moderates survived the midterms.
"In all likelihood, a deal like this [on spending and taxes] will benefit the president politically a lot more than it will benefit the Republican leaders," Time magazine senior political analyst Mark Halperin said Friday on MSNBC's Morning Joe program. "The president is going to have to convince them, appeal to patriotism, appeal to their sense of fiscal discipline, whatever it is, he's going to have to make them agree that this is the right thing to do. And they're going to have to trust him, and they're a long way from that."
In addition to the extension of the Bush tax cuts, other issues coming before the lame-duck Congress threaten to distance Obama from his increasingly left-leaning base. Among them:
• Don't ask, don't tell. The administration's response to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy against gays serving openly in the U.S. military. Some pundits believe Obama could take a strong stance against the policy to curry favor with his party's left, but as Commander-in-Chief he is also duty bound to defend current U.S. law. A Supreme Court ruling Friday that "don't ask, don't tell" can remain in effect until an appeals court hearing on whether the law should be tossed out means the policy will likely remain an irritant for the administration.
• Immigration reform and the DREAM Act. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says he will bring up the DREAM Act for a vote again in the Senate. Raising that issue again won't be popular with moderate Democrats, especially in border states.
• Jobless benefits and government funding. Unless Congress acts in the lame duck session, 2 million jobless people will lose their benefits by year's end. And Congress also has to pass another stopgap spending bill by Dec. 3, or risk a government shutdown due to lack of funding. Democrats want to ratify the new START treaty between the United States and Russia, cutting each nation's nuclear arsenal by 25 percent. Conservatives have expressed concerns that the treaty puts the United States at a serious disadvantage, however.
• Cap and trade, and energy legislation. Of course, cap and trade is dead in the Senate. But the EPA has reserved the right to act unilaterally without congressional approval. Republicans in the House plan a series of hearings on the issue, and may introduce legislation to limit the EPA's authority to limit greenhouse-gas emissions without congressional authorization.
• Healthcare reform. Republicans and some moderate Democrats may act right away to modify some provisions of Obamacare, such as the 1099 IRS filing requirements that are a burden to businesses. President Obama has expressed an openness to considering such a modification. But Republicans will probably wait until their reinforcements arrive in the 112th Congress before they mount their primary assault on the unpopular legislation.
Even if the left loses faith in Obama, a challenge to him in the Democratic primary is unlikely, according to University of Virginia Center for Politics director Dr. Larry J. Sabato.
"The real question is what happens in November 2012," Sabato tells Newsmax. "Will liberals be enthused about Obama and generate the large turnout missing this year? "If the economy is clearly recovering, almost certainly the answer is yes, even if there’s dissatisfaction about the lack of a public option or renewed Bush tax cuts.
"But if the economy looks anything like today’s, or if there is a double-dip recession, then even Obama’s base might well crumble," says Sabato.
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