Will a centrist Obama provoke a far-left rival?
Democrats do not forgive defeat very easily. In the week after his "shellacking" in the midterm elections, Democratic approval of Obama's performance as president dropped from 88 percent to 81 percent in the Zogby Poll, bringing his overall approval down to 43 percent. When a president starts to shed members of his own party, a vicious cycle has set in which can lead to a primary challenge.
Not from Hillary. At least not yet. She is far too cautious and intertwined with the administration to be the first to move against Obama. Just as Bobby Kennedy needed a Eugene McCarthy to test the waters for a primary challenge to Lyndon Johnson in 1968, so Hillary Clinton will look to others to try out Obama's vulnerability to a liberal challenge. As with Kennedy, if it works, she'll probably jump in. If it doesn't, she'll stay on as secretary of state.
There are three possible contenders who might enter Democratic primaries against Obama: Russ Feingold, Dennis Kucinich and Jerry Brown.
Feingold, newly defeated for Senate from Wisconsin, has always been the body's most liberal member. The author, with John McCain, of the campaign finance law, he has been consistent in opposing the wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan and has staked out a liberal position far to Obama's left. As a former senator, he would bring gravitas to the battle, and as a defeated former senator, he doesn't have a lot to lose.
Kucinich, the radical congressman from Ohio who ran in 2008, has always been a populist gadfly, dueling with the party's establishment. Also a consistent critic of the two wars, he has the guts to take on the mainstream of the party. He showed he could do it in 2008.
Now, with the wind at his back as Democratic disenchantment fuels his insurgency and the body count in Afghanistan animates his candidacy, Dennis the Menace might well jump into the race.
The most intriguing possibility is the newly elected governor of California, Jerry Brown. He has run for president twice before — most recently as Bill Clinton's major opponent in 1992 — and has the prestige of a California victory at his back.
Brown wouldn't run immediately, of course. He would need to get his feet wet as governor. But he will soon find that the answer to California's problems lies in Washington, as he will struggle to escape the financial mess he has inherited. More and more, look to him mixing it up with Obama over funding issues.
If the president heeds the counsel of the Clinton years and moves to the center, look for Jerry to challenge him more and more openly. Eventually, Brown could declare that the best way to serve the people of California is to run for president. "Once you get running for president into your system, it's hard to get rid of it," a very close friend of the new governor recently said.
Whoever rises to the occasion, nature abhors a vacuum — and politics likes it even less. As Obama struggles to compromise with the GOP House and to keep support from his terrified and slim Senate majority, his drift to the center is likely to spark greater left-wing animus. They won't like his budget cuts, and they will be outraged by his likely extension of the George W. Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. His compromises on the right will incite a candidacy on the left. Just watch.