Obama’s Precarious Left Flank

While Republican attacks on Obama over the economy are multiplying, the president’s real troubles may be the other end of the spectrum among his natural supporters on the left. There, dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and concerns about whether he is up to the job dog him.

Obama’s poor showing in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arkansas offers quantitative evidence of Democratic discontent with the president, and focus groups and polling offer qualitative evidence. Polls of registered voters show an Obama lead of up to four points, while those of likely voters show an equivalent lead for Romney. Obama cannot get his people to the polls. He can’t make registered voters who support him into likely voters. The Democratic discontent with Obama is taking its toll on the turnout of his base.

The biggest disappointment with Obama is his failure to achieve anything with the Republican Congress. The president’s advisors assume you can either blame the Democrats or the Republicans for the failure of Washington to achieve anything. But the fact is that you can also blame all incumbents, particularly the one in the White House.

Democrats are impatient with Obama’s failure to get anything done and intolerant of his inability to force Republicans to pass his legislation. While one side of this double-edged sword blames the GOP for ideological intransigence, the other sees in Obama a politician not able to produce and not up to the job. With books recounting how uninvolved Obama is in the legislative process (quite the contrary of the image of LBJ we see in the Caro biography), the negative view of the president among his normal supporters only grows worse.

To liberals already antagonized by the fact that Gitmo is still open, that it took so long to pull out of Iraq, that we are still in Afghanistan, and that Obama may have been so incompetent in drafting his health care law that it is unconstitutional, the president’s failures with Congress may become the last straw.

Now we face a summer of new confrontation in Washington and, likely, new gridlock — because, inexplicably, Obama raised the debt limit too little to put raising it off until into 2013, and he now has to go about raising it again. Democratic demands for a “clean” debt limit increase devoid of spending cuts have failed to stir any interest among House Republicans. So it’s back to the old debate. Republicans will press for spending cuts. Democrats will only accept smaller cuts and only if they are also accompanied by tax increases on the wealthy. Republicans won’t buy any tax increase, so more gridlock will eventuate.

In addition, GOP concerns about the impact of the defense sequester cuts and their efforts to reduce military spending cuts are also likely to add to the partisan divisions and gridlock.

This situation is a win-win for the Republicans.

If gridlock develops, the president will be the main casualty. The sense that he is, on the one hand, too weak and on the other hand, too partisan and negative, will grow and alienate liberal and Democratic voters, further depressing their turnout.

House Republicans, as a group, will suffer too. But they don’t run as a group. They run as individuals and can skirt the blame for inaction in Washington as they campaign.

But, for Obama, more gridlock will only deepen the sense that he is not up to the job of leading America.

And, if Obama compromises — that is to say, surrenders — to GOP demands for cuts, the resulting image of weakness, centrism, and lack of conviction will hurt him just as surely as his approval of the Bush tax cuts hurt him with his base in the lame duck session of 2010.

Either way, the events of the summer do not bode well for the president.

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