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Obama’s liberal shift vs. reality

Liberals were jazzed by President Obama's inaugural address Monday.

But in the Senate are a half-dozen Democrats who were likely not so thrilled.

Democrats in 2014 will defend seven Senate seats in states that went Republican in the 2012 presidential election. And a left-leaning agenda could put many of them in a tough spot, balancing the will of the party with the will of their constituents.

Here's a look at the seven red states that Democrats will defend in 2014:

The Hotline's Josh Kraushaar lays out the stakes for these senators:

Combine the tendency for midterms providing a more GOP-friendly electorate, the large number of Senate Democrats on the ballot in deeply conservative states, and the president’s open signal that he’s chasing a progressive legacy, and the seeds could well be planted for trouble ahead.

Note that in six of these states, Obama lost by double digits — making them not just red states, but among the reddest states in the country. In the reddest of these states, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller is retiring, leaving six others possibly seeking another term.

And there is already plenty of evidence that these senators are putting some distance between themselves and Obama. The National Journal's Michael Catalini writes:

Just look at the replies to gun control: Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana pointed to Louisiana's strong hunting culture and called for "balance." Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota said his state doesn't have the same problems with guns as New York or New Jersey, and he stressed that he was a hunter himself.  Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is not up for reelection until 2018, has become a leading voice in the gun control debate since the Connecticut shooting, telling gun owners "that there is no way they are going to take your Second Amendment rights away."

Lawmakers have also tacked to the right of the president on other issues, like the Keystone XL pipeline. A bipartisan group of senators, including Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina  and Landrieu, signed onto a letter co-authored by Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who is also up in 2014, calling on Obama to consider the jobs the pipeline could bring to the region. Obama delayed the project before the November election, a sign applauded by environmental groups but derided on the right — a perfect lens for the red-state Democrats, then.

So what does it mean going forward?

First off, we need to note that, while Obama's inaugural address was seen as an embrace of liberalism, it didn't lay out a specific legislative agenda. So while he talked about climate change, for example, it's not clear that he'll propose another divisive cap and trade bill or other left-leaning bills that will test red-state Democrats.

We would note that many of the concepts Obama focused on, including entitlements and the need for immigration reform, are broadly popular. So the idea that Obama is going left is much more about tone than substance or legislation. Obama is girding for a fight on at least one tough issue — guns — but it remains to be seen how the speech will translate into other legislation.

There's another side to all of this too, though. That is, by standing against Obama's agenda on some of these issues, these Democrats can actually create and have created some necessary distance between themselves and the occupant of the White House. And that can be helpful — for their reelection, at least.

We saw in 2010 and 2012 how many red-state Democrats ran ads noting their opposition to the party line on issues such as the Environmental Protection Agency's actions, cap and trade and the Keystone XL pipeline.

At the same time, by doing so, they would be undercutting Obama's agenda in a big way.

The GOP-controlled House remains Obama's biggest legislative hurdle, but if he wants to apply pressure on House Republicans to vote for his priorities, he'll first need to convince these Senate Democrats to do so. Without them, Republicans have more than enough political cover to vote "no."

The gun control debate is a great first test case for the relationship between the new Obama and these red-state Democrats. If they jump on board with something like the assault weapons ban, it's a sign that they are willing to take risks when it comes to their reelection — particularly given how important guns are to each of their states — and that bodes very well for Obama.

If they don't, the opposite is true, and Obama's agenda will be thrown into serious doubt.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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