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Why Obama won’t face a primary challenge

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President Obama is faring poorly these days, but he can console himself with the fact that he’ll probably be spared the fate of previous presidents who fell on hard times: a primary challenge. Those groups within the Democratic Party that might otherwise be shopping around for a more forthrightly progressive alternative are deterred by two factors: the likelihood that any challenge will end up helping a radicalized Republican Party and the fact that Obama is black.

Obama strategists’ confidence that he will not face an intra-party challenge from his left has allowed the president to focus, however inexpertly, on courting the center. They can point to polling that confirms their confidence. Gallup numbers for the final week of July show the president’s overall job approval at 42 percent, but among Democrats it was 77 percent and among liberal Democrats 83 percent. While his rating among whites was a dangerously low 36 percent, it was 83 percent among African Americans.

Yet among political elites, when it comes to Obama’s policies, or to the deals that, however reluctantly, he approves, the most disapproving Democrats are the liberals. House Democrats split down the middle, 95 to 95, on the debt-ceiling deal, but while the Blue Dog Democratic caucus supported the deal 21 to 3, Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus opposed it 24 to 16.

The litany of liberal grievances against the president breaks down into the sins of omission (failure to make a more compelling case for government’s ability to arrest economic decline at a time when the private sector has stopped producing jobs; failure to stop more foreclosures; failure to get a public option in the health-care bill; failure to rein in the banks more; failure to take a stronger stand against Republican obstructionism — and the list goes on) and the sins of commission (chiefly, his willingness during the debt negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner to raise the age of eligibility for Medicare and reduce Social Security benefits).

The president’s defenders can rightly point to his indisputable progressive achievements; in the past week alone, he’s gotten automakers to agree to much higher fuel efficiency standards and put in place a policy of free contraceptives for women. They cite mitigating factors for the goals he’s failed to reach.

But the defenders of George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson could also point to their presidents’ achievements and attempt to explain away their failings. Obama retains a higher level of support from his base, though, than his primaried predecessors, even as he loses round after round with the Tea Partied Republicans, flirts with degrading the nation’s historic social insurance programs and unhappily presides over the worst economy since the Great Depression. He’s a little like a cartoon character who runs off the edge of a cliff but doesn’t fall — at least, until he looks down. What’s keeping him up?

Obama’s first anti-gravitation device is Democrats’ awareness that Republicans oppose him totally and routinely on virtually everything, denying him not merely victories but even semi-acceptable compromises. Trumping all other matters of policy, the GOP’s chief goal, as Mitch McConnell put it, is to deny Obama reelection. The depth and consistency of GOP opposition helps keep Obama aloft within his party, even as it also drags down the country. Fear of Republican fanaticism also renders Democrats reluctant to weaken Obama with a primary challenge that could make him less electable in November 2012.

The other reason Obama hasn’t faced a challenge, and isn’t likely to, is that he’s black. Any Democrat who would challenge Obama, whatever the basis of his or her candidacy, would almost surely encounter intense opposition from the party’s African American base, the one group in Democrats’ orbit that regularly votes Democratic at a 90 percent rate. Such a challenge could create a rift that might take decades to heal.

Moreover, Obama’s election in 2008 validated one of the Democratic Party’s most fundamental achievements — enactment of civil and voting rights legislation that made America a far more racially egalitarian nation. Any anti-Obama candidacy from within the party runs up against the justifiable sense of pride and historic vindication that Democrats took in Obama’s election.

The Democratic threat to Obama, then, won’t come in the primaries. It will come in the general election, when millions of voters who surged for Obama in 2008 — disproportionately young and minority — may stay home in silent referendum on Obama’s failure to fix a dysfunctional economy. Obama needs to figure out what to say and do to rekindle their (and everyone else’s) hope.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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