By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
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 upon 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.
Despite 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 Democrats in 10, and liberals give him similar ratings.
Obama is also holding the political center. His approval has stayed in the 55 percent to 65 percent range among independents, and between 65 percent and 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.
This creates a problem for Republican political leaders. Their aggressive attacks on the president earn cheers from their own base, but are out of line with a public that continues to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. It’s thus not surprising that a recent Washington-Post/ABC survey found that only 36 percent of Americans held a favorable opinion of the Republican Party; 56 percent had a negative view. Other polls show the GOP in even worse shape.
Still, it will get more difficult for Obama to maintain support from both the left and the center as he faces potentially divisive choices in the context of a stricken economy.
If short-term pressures to accommodate concerns about the deficit curb Obama’s ambitions, the result could be not only disaffection among progressives but also disappointment among the less ideologically inclined. Despite their skepticism about government, most in this latter constituency still want Washington to foster economic expansion and improve their health coverage.
The president will thus have to balance worries about losing some moderate support against the larger danger of failing to achieve the sweeping change he promised. And centrist Democrats in Congress could usefully recall that the party’s inability to deliver on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign pledges, particularly on health care, led to a stunning defeat two years later that decimated its moderates and liberals alike.
In his first six months, Obama showed he was up to the job. This summer will test his ability to make agonizing choices—and make them stick.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group