Obama Faces Challenge on Reform, Deficit

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, July 6, 2009

As President Obama confronts his testing time this summer, he holds major assets but faces deep tensions within his governing coalition. This will force him to make hard choices earlier than he might have preferred.

His assets include steady affection from a large majority of the country, a political base as solid as the one that allowed Ronald Reagan to govern effectively even through slides in his popularity, and a weak Republican Party whose support is confined to the right end of the political spectrum.

At the same time, Obama will be called upon to manage growing friction within his majority between its large progressive core and its less ideological fringes.

For progressives, the president's long-term political well-being depends on delivering tangible benefits to middle-class voters in areas such as health care, education and financial security, even at the risk of temporarily higher budget deficits.

Many of his moderate supporters worry about those deficits and express more skepticism than progressives do about government's capacity to bring about change. Yet the attitudes toward government held by Obama's middle-of-the-road sympathizers are characterized not by the hostility that animates conservatives but by ambivalence and uncertainty.

On no issue will these tensions be as important, or as difficult, to resolve as on health care.

While moderates in the Senate press for a less robust approach to reform, progressives fear the impact of conceding too much ground. Such accommodations, they believe, would create a health plan that still required politically painful tax increases but delivered too few tangible gains to the middle-income Americans looking to Obama to improve their situations.

The danger is that the political center in Congress -- particularly in the Senate -- is not the same as the political center in the country. For example, while some moderate Democrats express skepticism about including a government option as one choice within a reformed health-care system, many recent polls have shown broad support for such a public plan.

For senators, the issue is ideological, and their views are also driven by the concerns of interest groups. For most voters, however, the public plan is an additional and welcome choice that expands their ability to bargain within the health-care marketplace.

Despites these challenges, Obama enters the second half of the year with approval ratings that hover between the high 50s and mid-60s. Like Reagan, Obama enjoys nearly unanimous favorability within his own party. He wins approval from nine out of 10 Democrats, and liberals give him similar ratings.

Obama is also holding the political center. His approval has stayed at 55 percent to 65 percent among independents and 65 to 70 percent among moderates.

The major change in the polls over Obama's first months in office has been a consolidation of opposition to him on the political right. A recent Gallup survey found that among conservative Republicans just 16 percent approved of Obama's performance, and among all self-described conservatives, his approval ratings are in the mid-30s.

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