The growing rift between Obama and his base is a political time bomb he must face.
One year after Candidate Obama inspired the world to vote for symbolic "change," the Democratic Party is now deeply divided by two divergent, and seemingly irreconcilable, approaches to reform. If President Obama fails to grasp soon why his idea of reform has alienated key parts of his base--and if he fails to do something to bridge the divide--the result may be much worse than acrimony from the chattering liberal classes. He could have a full on mutiny on his hands by 2010.
One way to describe this divide is to say that President Obama has advanced "conservative reform"--repair and improve, but maintain what we have--whereas the base of the Democratic Party wants, and has aggressively demanded, "progressive reform"--out with the old, in with the new.
It is impossible to exaggerate how much friction these contrasting approaches to reform have created in just one year.
Consider, for example, the banking crisis. Having inherited the TARP program from the previous administration, President Obama continued to advance a policy of using government funds to mend the broken financial institutions and then create new regulations to steady the markets: improve, but maintain. The base of his party, by contrast, called for a complete overhaul of the financial industry, and a new set of legal measures that would neuter investment banks, reign in corporate power, and limit windfall profits: out with the old, in with the new.
The automotive industry bailout was the second big example of this divide. When the large American auto manufactures faced ruin, President Obama called for a sophisticated government bailout. His idea was to use to government resources to prop up the auto industry and shepherd them through bankruptcy. The Cash for Clunkers program then jump started the restructured manufacturers: repair, but maintain. The base of his party, by contrast, largely called for government to allow the Detroit-centered industry to die a natural death, pushing instead for a massive investment in the fledgling, West Coast green automotive industry: out with the old, in with the new.
The health care reform debate has also spotlighted this divide. Obama has pushed for a reformed and regulated private health insurance industry: repair, but maintain. The base of his party, by contrast, has called for the end of a health care system based on private health insurance, pushing instead for a non-profit, single payer system: out with the old, in with the new.
Next up on the environment--although this fight is now being obscured by the health care argument--Obama will call for investment in new energy sources, but will also push for repairing and maintaining the oil and coal industries. The base of his party, by contrast, will call for an end to the oil and coal industries, and a total switch over to a new energy economy.
And so on, and so forth.
With each of these fights, a larger and larger portion of the issues patchwork Democratic Party base is drawn into a increasingly bitter narrative of disappointment over Obama's approach to reform.
By 2010, just about every Democratic Party member with a stake in some issue will be saying the same thing about Obama: his policies are not a clear enough departure from the past; this is not real reform.
The collective malaise will only be compounded if Democratic losses in the midterm election are significant.
What should Obama do? Here are five suggestions:
First, Obama needs to recognize that he gained support during his Presidential campaign because he personally symbolized a departure from the past. His identity, his speaking style, his ability to draw young and old into politics--all of this symbolized progressive change for people.
Second, Obama needs to understand that he has not led the country in any discussion whatsoever about why a conservative approach to reform is better than a progressive approach to reform. He may have had these discussions behind the scenes, but he has not had them on the full stage of the public debate.
Third, Obama needs to find some way over the next three to six months to deliver some kind of reform that looks and feels to his base like a clean departure from the past.
Fourth, Obama needs to spend less energy and political capital dealing with the base of the Republican Party, and more energy and political capital reaching out and working with the base of the Democratic Party.
Fifth, Obama needs to play a more central role leading the push for reform. The base that elected him does not know what to do when his initiatives are pushed by uncharismatic leaders in the House and Senate. The President needs to be the voice and the face of reform, not just the beer table host.
In other words, Obama needs to realize that he is the focus, and as such, he foments or alleviates the base's concerns over reform. From what I can tell, the crush of crises put on his desk has led Obama to forget this crucial point
After listening to him talk on the campaign trail, expectations were very high for a President who pushed progressive reform. The base will work with him at a more conservative level, but not until he stands up and explains why this is important.
The clock is ticking.