The Illinois 10th Congressional District Democrats work in Barack Obama’s political heartland, the northern suburbs of Chicago, which so warmly embraced a young state senator’s bid for the US Senate in 2004 and the presidency in 2008. Long before Obama became a national phenomenon, he had liberals swooning in Glenview, Deerfield and Northbrook. But early last month, after President Obama overruled his own Environmental Protection Agency and scuttled anti-smog regulations, the blog of 10th District Dems featured a plaintive post: “Do I still believe his promises? I want to… I really want to.” Even as the grassroots group was spreading the word that “volunteers are needed for Avon, Antioch, Grant, and Lake Villa for President Obama’s campaign,” sincere activists were speculating on its website about whether President Obama is a “monumental fraud.” The frustration with Obama is real and widespread, extending from environmental issues to economics to foreign policy. “I’ve been going door-to-door a lot in the past few weeks” for Democratic candidates, says Sharon Sanders, a member of the group. “We’re only hitting Democrats, and they are so discouraged about everything—as I am.”
So what about a challenge to Obama? Should a progressive take on the president in the rapidly approaching Democratic caucuses and primaries?
“Boy, have I given this some thought,” says Sanders. “I’m fifty-fifty on it. On the one hand, it would wake up Obama and the Democratic voters and perhaps get them out to vote.” On the other hand, she worries about taking steps that could strengthen the hand of conservative forces she fears are hellbent on “destroying any fragment of what’s left of our democracy and taking away all essential government programs.”
In labor temples, lecture halls and library meeting rooms across the country in recent months, I have had hundreds of discussions with folks like Sanders: hard-working, deeply committed grassroots party activists who line up well to the left of a president they see as too quick to compromise on economics, civil liberties and wars. Some prominent progressives have stepped up, endorsing a letter in mid-September arguing that without a primary challenge, “progressive principles past and present [will] be betrayed.” The signers include Ralph Nader, Cornel West, Gore Vidal, Jonathan Kozol, Rabbi Michael Lerner, former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk and Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica. It is not just unmet expectations that lead roughly a third of Democratic voters to tell pollsters Obama should face a primary challenge; it is also a sense that the president cannot energize the Democratic base and win in 2012 unless he is forced to define himself as a dramatically more progressive candidate.
Once upon a time, the sense of malaise and frustration of so many of the party faithful, along with encouragement from prominent activists and ideologues, would have guaranteed a primary challenge to a sitting president. It would have come from a prominent senator, like Estes Kefauver in 1952, Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Edward Kennedy in 1980—or, in the Republican column, from an ideological gadfly like Ronald Reagan in 1976 or Patrick Buchanan in 1992.
But when I ask Susanne Donovan, a Cornell University student activist who has expressed frustration with Obama, whether it might be good for a progressive to challenge him, her instant reply is, “Who?” She’s got a point. Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Dennis Kucinich, progressive stalwarts who have suggested Obama could benefit from intraparty competition, are quick to clarify that they’re not running.
It’s not just lack of courage or ambition that keeps big-name Democrats out of the fray. There are practical reasons that no sitting president, Democratic or Republican, has faced a challenge from a sitting member of Congress or a governor since 1980. Presidential politics have changed dramatically over the past three decades. These days presidents never really stop campaigning after their initial election, and that goes double for Obama. His will be the most well-financed re-election campaign in history, and the resources available for demolishing any primary challenge will be unprecedented. He has full control of the Democratic National Committee, and his aides and allies have worked behind the scenes to “streamline” the nominating process by reducing the role of the superdelegates, organizing the caucuses and the primaries on a schedule favorable to the president and deciding to hold the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, a Southern city in a right-to-work state, rather than in a Northern city with a labor-left base and history. Critics fear it will be “a tediously scripted national convention, deprived of robust exchange and well-wrought policy.”