Satirist Will Rogers once said he was “not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Barack Obama must have understood exactly what Rogers meant after Senate Democrats voted 90 to 6 against his funding request for closing Gitmo.
In recent weeks, there have been grumblings from so-called Blue Dog—i.e., conservative—Democrats about government spending and deficits under the Obama plan. Some have also complained about Obama’s agricultural policies, environmental initiatives, and potential health care proposals. Is Obama about to encounter what Bill Clinton suffered when he, too, took office with control of both Houses of Congress? Recall that Clinton lost control of Congress at the following mid term elections. As a result, much of the Clinton Administration was saddled with compromise legislation for the rest of his presidency, one that failed to achieve its original promise. Is the same fate awaiting Obama?
Immediately after the vote, Obama went on the offensive and outlined his plan for Gitmo. While incomplete, it did provide a direction and some needed reassurance for his party. The Cheney offensive, coupled with overall Republican disarray, has given Obama cover to some extent. It seems likely he will get the funding that was refused just last week after all. The difference between Clinton and Obama is that Obama did not complain or withdraw—he went to the battlefront, gave a sense of direction, acknowledged the position of the Senate, and worked to regain the upper hand. When the president seems to lose the advantage, he immediately switches into ‘teacher mode’ and it has worked so far. Yet, some on the right continue to question the president over big government initiatives and the left is also beginning to express discontent.
This being said, Democrats are by nature a party of special interests and defined constituencies. The party has an ideological base that is left of center, but unlike the Republican party, it is less homogeneous and more prone to dissent and conflict. Clinton was able to rein in the more left-leaning progressives thanks to his ability to bring a more centrist view of things. In so doing, he captured the White House and victory gave him the advantage over factional dissent. Obama, on the other hand, has been the darling of the leftists. But in recent weeks, he has been the object of much grumbling by this segment of the party.
They feel he is governing too close to the center, especially on foreign policy and national security, and they do not believe he has sufficiently rolled back Bush-Cheney policies. This can only complicate Obama’s already difficult agenda, one that includes governing through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, two wars, nuclear threats from North Korea, and festering Middle East issues. Each would be a handful on its own without having to manage the expectations of party ideologues, left or right. These ideologues are the Storm Cloud Democrats—and they represent a bigger threat to Obama than the GOP.
To his credit, Obama has been able to put together an impressive cabinet and staff that is deliberate in method and resolute in purpose. The president has shown skill and temperament to deal with divergence and dissent from outside the ranks of his party. The real test will come with health care and his own party, just as it was with Clinton. Failure on this issue went a long way in defining the Clinton legacy. Obama must begin to react to the storm clouds on the horizon. How he deals with this will make or break his presidency.