A Primary Challenge For Obama?

Even though it will likely be unsuccessful, a primary challenge against President Obama could end up harming him enough to hand Republicans the White House in 2012.

With the left in open revolt over what they see as President Obama’s betrayal in his agreement with Senate Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts, talk has inevitably turned to the question of whether the President might face a primary challenge in 2012:

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s compromise with Republicans on extending tax cuts for the wealthy, which his self-described progressive critics see as a profound betrayal, is bound to intensify a debate that has been bubbling up on liberal blogs and e-mail lists in recent weeks — whether or not the president who embodied “hope and change” in 2008 should face a primary challenge in 2012.

The idea seems to have little momentum for now, not least because there isn’t an obvious candidate, and because such a challenge would seem to have about as much chance of success as, say, a reality show about David Hasselhoff. That a primary is being openly discussed, though, reflects how fully Mr. Obama’s relationship with his party’s liberal activists has ruptured and the considerable confusion on the left over what to do about it.

Just last weekend, three liberal writers made the case for taking on Mr. Obama in 2012. Michael Lerner, longtime editor of Tikkun magazine, argued in The Washington Post that a primary represented a “real way to save the Obama presidency,” by forcing Mr. Obama to move leftward. Robert Kuttner, co-founder of The American Prospect and one of the party’s most scathing populist voices, issued a similar call on The Huffington Post, suggesting Iowa as the ideal incubator.

On the same site, Clarence B. Jones, a one-time confidant of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., suggested that liberals should break with Mr. Obama now, just as Dr. King and others did with Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. “It is not easy to consider challenging the first African-American to be elected president of the United States,” Mr. Jones wrote. “But, regrettably, I believe the time has come to do this.”

Meanwhile, in Iowa, a group known as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, originally founded to aid Democratic Congressional candidates in 2010, has started broadcasting an advertisement that shows Mr. Obama, in 2008, promising to reverse the tax cuts for the most affluent Americans. The group isn’t advocating a primary challenge just yet — but then, the choice of Iowa as a market seems intended to send a pretty clear warning to the White House.

“On issue after issue, when the public is on his side, this president just refuses to fight,” says Adam Green, the group’s co-founder. “At this point, the strategy is to shame him into fighting

Of course, the fact that Obama hasn’t pleased the progressive wing of the Democratic Party isn’t entirely surprising. He was elected in 2008 by a coalition that was far broader and, while he may have campaigned on issues that progressives supported, anyone with a modicum of political sense realizes that he wasn’t going to be able to fulfill all their dreams in one term, or even in two. Health care reform lacked a public option not because Barack Obama consciously threw progressives under the bus, but because a bill with a public option was never going to make its way through Congress. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal has taken so long because Republicans in the Senate have been able to use parliamentary procedures to block it. Barack Obama agreed to an extension of all the Bush tax cuts because, as I noted earlier this week, the Democrats were playing with a very bad hand from the beginning while Republicans held all the cards. Progressives attacking Obama for any of this seems to me to be the same kind of idiotic circular firing squad mentality that we saw from many on the right during the midterms. It’s dumb, and it doesn’t actually accomplish much in the end except, maybe, giving people the sense that they’ve won some moral, albeit Pyrrhic, victory.

I doubt that the left is going to take my advice, though, so let’s assume for a moment that there’s some support on the left in 2012 for a primary challenge against Obama. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate candidate to make such a challenge, as Stephen Green notes today:

If Obama gets primaried, who will be his challenger? Someone from the center, a moderate? Unlikely. Challengers typically come from the disillusioned base (Eugene McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, Teddy Kennedy) or the wacky extreme (Pat Buchanan). So the idea of Hillary rising from Obama’s ashes to take him on seems pretty silly.

The challenger must be someone from the Super Lefty Left. To defeat the master, the challenger must be able to release Obama’s grip on the African American vote — and no such person exists. Put simply: Obama will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee in 2012.

But is there someone strong enough inflict that mortal wound? That person would also have to be deluded enough (or simply upset enough) to make a run at the master? Not yet, there isn’t, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be.

There are plenty of names one could toss out there that might fit this bill. Howard Dean, Russ Feingold, even soon-to-be-former Congressman Alan Grayson, who would arguably fit the definition of being a Pat Buchahan-like candidate on the left. All of them have support among progressives, but it’s fairly apparent that none of them would ever be able to come as close to defeating Obama as Ted Kennedy came in his challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1976 1980, and even that was unsuccessful.

In modern times, of course, primary or nomination challenges to incumbent Presidents have rarely been successful. The last time it happened was in 1884 when Chester Alan Arthur was denied the Republican nomination in favor of James G. Blaine. More recently, though, such challenges have manged to cause lasting damages even when they weren’t successful. Lyndon Johnson faced such vehement challenges from the left over the Vietnam War in 1968 that he decided not to run for re-election, Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Cater proved to be the beginning of the end of Cater’s Presidency, and Pat Buchanan’s challenge to George H.W. Bush in 1992, which included a surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, weakened Bush significantly heading into that year’s General Election campaign. Something similar could happen to Obama in 2012, especially if the economy has not recovered or if he continues down his current road of doing everything he can to anger progressives. A challenge from the left may not matter in the end, or it could be the final blow for a President who by then may have taken four long years of blows.

It’s going to be fun to watch.

Update: Amidst all this talk about challenging the President from within his own party, it’s worth it to keep this chart in mind:

Until that chart starts to change significantly, speculation about a 2012 primary challenge is just that, speculation.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. This assumes that he would win without a primary challenge, does it not? Just another to shift blame for failure away from The Won.

    But look on the bright side, if Clarence Jones is going to oppose Obama, presumably calling any opposition to Obama racist should be over, shouldn’t it?

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I think this is nuts. Obama would welcome a challenge from the left. For a president who won because of centrists and who has been attacked as too far left?

  3. Mr. Prosser says:

    What I would like to see is the president verbally bitch slapping the ultra left and the uber right for the next 18 month while working on the economy (jobs). Nothing will shut down a demagogue or a flip-flopping mealy mouth faster than someone actually getting something done or at least honestly trying to and exposing the political saboteurs along the way.

  4. An Interested Point says:

    “It’s going to be fun to watch.”

    Surely not as fun to watch as the Republican primaries…I mean, considering the potential cast of characters that will be involved…that will be entertainment…

    “This assumes that he would win without a primary challenge, does it not?”

    Which potential Republican challenger would beat him at this point…

  5. Trumwill says:

    Obama would welcome a challenge from the left.

    Right, left, or center, primary opponents for incumbents are historically pretty bad news. The one term presidents (Bush, Carter, Ford, Johnson) had them while the two-termers (Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon) did not.

    Of course, it’s likely not *because* there was a primary challenge that made them lose the race. Rather, their vulnerability invited challengers. I imagine it would be the same way with Obama. If he’s not looking vulnerable, I don’t see any serious primary challenges (even Buchanan-level) coming his way. If he picks up a challenge, it’s likely an indicator (as opposed to a cause) of weakness.

    On the other hand, their could be a causal element to it. It extends the campaign by months. That’s months spent campaigning rather than looking purely presidential. Months spent campaigning for himself rather than for others whose reciprocal support could be important.

  6. michael reynolds says:


    He won’t have to campaign at the primary level because there’s no Kennedy out there to play the role of, well, Kennedy, to his Jimmy Carter. If there’s a lefty challenge it will almost certainly be from someone on the order of a Kucinich. I can’t think of a substantial heavy-weight who can/will come after Obama from the left, especially given that Obama will keep the African-American vote.

    And where would this mythical lefty take him on? Iowa maybe, but the student-activist voters generally curl up and die, even in Iowa. (See: Howard Dean.) A hard-left challenge in New Hampshire? Or South Carolina? Nah.

    The left has to throw a little hissy fit over this, but if Obama goes down it won’t be because of some next-gen Kucinich, it’ll be because unemployment is still at 9%.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    Trumwill: I tend to think a weakened president causes challenges rather than the causation being the opposite.

    OTOH, third party challenges might cause greater disruptions, like Perot and Anderson.

    michael’s got a good point about supply. The only politician sitting to the side with a ready-made power base to swing into action is Hillary.

  8. TG Chicago says:

    “But look on the bright side, if Clarence Jones is going to oppose Obama, presumably calling any opposition to Obama racist should be over, shouldn’t it?”

    Could you please link to someone who said that any opposition to Obama is racist? Thanks.

  9. Trumwill says:

    I tend to think a weakened president causes challenges rather than the causation being the opposite.

    I think that’s mostly right, but once the challenge is initiated, I do think it hurts. How much? Hard to say. One of those things that can turn a weak victor (Bush 2004) into a loser, but not one that can take a strong victor and hurt all that much.

    michael’s got a good point about supply. The only politician sitting to the side with a ready-made power base to swing into action is Hillary.

    Russ Feingold comes to mind. Also possible (and much more problematic) is the left rallying behind someone that isn’t actually all that far to the left but is adopted by the left anyway. A Bill Bradley type. I do think that Obama is less vulnerable than Gore in that respect, but I can’t say for certain.

    I disagree with Michael that Obama wouldn’t have to campaign. Not campaigning even against a Kucinich could be problematic. If Kucinich makes any sort of headway, it will further the perception that Obama is weak.

  10. Trumwill says:

    Could you please link to someone who said that any opposition to Obama is racist?

    Ahhh, but that’s not necessary. You just need someone to point out that each type of opposition is racist in origin. Find one or two members of that group who are suspect, and use that to suggest that the entire group is racist. It’s pretty easy to do. You don’t have to declare them all a racist. Just take them on, group by group and criticism by criticism.

    Of course, so is the other. Appealing to racism, but priming to be outraged when you’re called racist.

    That’s what makes things… complicated… with the current president. You have one side that wants to use everything in its arsenal to take down a political opponent, including latent racism among the white public. You have another side that wants declare as much as possible as being out of bounds just in case it might have some appeal to racism (and even if they know doesn’t, make it sound like it does).

  11. Wayne says:

    If Obama continues to have trouble, I can see Hillary run against him. Yes I know many of you disagree. She has a fair chance of beating him. I hope she doesn’t run though.

    At this point the strongest and best challengers are not well known to the “general” public. People like Barbour, Christie, Jindal, etc. Nominate any one of those today and give them six or more months to campaign and they would likely beat him.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    “People like Barbour, Christie, Jindal, etc. Nominate any one of those today and give them six or more months to campaign and they would likely beat him.”

    Really? Talk about a cast of characters…I’m sure it would be high entertainment to see Boss Hogg or the Amateur Exorcism Performer in a debate with the president…yeah, they sure would likely beat him…

  13. Trumwill says:

    As Joyner has pointed out, nobody really seems to be presidential material (except to supporters) until they’re on the verge of being elected president. At this point, it is conceivable that almost anyone this side of Sarah Palin could do it.

    I’ve fallen into this trap myself, believing that John Kerry could never be elected president and George W. Bush before that. One became president and the other one, changing a few variables, very easily could have been. You never really know.

    I still discount Palin and Gingrich, though, pretty firmly.

  14. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Obama is the ultra left but he is also the President. Look at what he has already done, look at his past and take a peek at his agenda and what he wants to get done. Centerist? Not a chance. We will see what kind of centerist he is when he is dealing with a Republican house. We will see how he deals with oversight by people who diameterically oppose all that Obama stands for. No one he stood the tutiledge of Frank M. Davis, who was a card carrying member of the Communist party and one who adheres to the mad teaching of Saul Alinsky and operates by Alinsky’s rules (demonizing the opposition) can ever be considered a centerist. Shows how deluded most who post here are.

  15. ponce says:

    “Shows how deluded most who post here are.”

    Looks like the tax deal has caused the fringe right members like zels to realize how little power they’ll have in the upcoming session of Congress and now they’re retreating back to the warm safety of magical thinking that’s sustained them for the past…60 years or so.

  16. anjin-san says:

    > People like Barbour, Christie, Jindal, etc. Nominate any one of those today and give them six or more months to campaign and they would likely beat him.

    Step away from the crack pipe…