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An Obama Primary Challenge? Don't Bet on It

President Barack Obama returns to the White House in Washington
President Barack Obama returns to the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 6, 2010, after a short trip to Winston-Salem, N.C., to focus on jobs and the economy. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A column in the New York Times today headlined "Murmurs of Primary Challenge to Obama" is generating buzz about whether the president could face a serious challenge from within his own party in his reelection bid in 2012.

The reality, however, is that such a challenge is extremely unlikely.

It is certainly true, as Hotsheet notedeven before Mr. Obama gave in to Republican demands on extending (at least temporarily) the Bush-era tax cuts for the highest earners, that liberal pundits and activists are disenchanted with the president for not taking a stronger stand on a range of issues.

But there is a difference between the liberal blogosphere and pundit class - what White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs calls the "professional left" - and the liberal base overall. According to the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 90 percent of blacks still approve of the president, as do 82 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of liberals. It would seem to be very difficult to mount a successful challenge from the left in light of these numbers.

Add to that the fact that there is no plausible and interested challenger out there - no figure like Ted Kennedy, who challenged (and weakened) Jimmy Carter. Howard Dean and Russ Feingold, perhaps the two most viable options, say they aren't doing it; Dean said he "is absolutely, categorically not running in 2012," while Feingold's spokesman said the Wisconsin Democrat "has no interest in challenging President Obama in 2012." Rep. Dennis Kucinich has also ruled out a run.

Could these men change their mind? Sure. It's also possible that another plausible challenger could emerge. But the president's enduring popularity with the rank-and-file on the left, as well as his massive institutional advantage, means that the threat is minimal.

Indeed, the Times column is pretty thin on evidence that there is momentum building for a primary challenge: It points to Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, former Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. confident Clarence B. Jones and American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner. With all due respect to these men, that does not constitute a groundswell of support for a primary challenge.

One person the Times did not mention is Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano, who said this week, "I have to pick the best amongst those people who are running, and it may or may not be President Barack Obama's reelection." Capuano hedged, however - he said he doesn't think a primary challenge was useful - and there is little serious talk of a challenge by Democratic lawmakers more broadly.

In fact, while liberal pundits are certainly disenchanted with Mr. Obama, he actually might be in more political peril had he catered to them more aggressively. A burgeoning "middle way" or "third way" movement, led by New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, has been positioning itself as a common-sense alternative to the two parties' policies. Mr. Obama's positioning as someone willing to compromise, as displayed most recently in the tax cut deal, makes him less vulnerable to a challenge grounded in that "middle way" philosophy in a general election.

There have been examples of serious primary challenges in the recent past, of course: Ronald Reagan of Gerald Ford in 1976, Ted Kennedy of Jimmy Carter in 1980, Pat Buchanan of George H.W. Bush in 1992. All three incumbents won their primaries but lost reelection, and the White House certainly doesn't want to see a candidate come along who might weaken Mr. Obama in the same way. (By contrast, presidents without serious primary challenges in recent years -- George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan -- all won reelection.)

But at the moment - despite the juicy Times headline - Mr. Obama doesn't seem to have much to worry about.

Brian Montopoli is senior political reporter for You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.
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