On the day before Christmas, President Barack Obama found two presents under his tree. One was the health care reform bill passed by the Senate, a historic measure so freighted with promise and problems that it could blow up.
The other was an op-ed article in The Washington Post by William Daley, one of the canniest Democrats I know, warning Obama that he is on the verge of losing his grip on the vital center of politics.
Former Commerce Secretary Daley, who shares with his brother, Mayor Richard M. Daley, and their late father an iron grip on reality, cited all the signs of defection among swing voters whose support in 2006 and 2008 swelled Democratic ranks in Congress and elected Obama. He ticked off the losses Democrats suffered in the only two gubernatorial elections of 2009, in New Jersey and Virginia; the polls showing independents rejecting Democrats; a wave of early retirements by marginal House members; and, last week, the party switch by Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith from Democrat to Republican.
His target is the left of his party -- the grass-roots liberal activists who condemn the centrist Democrats for blocking some provisions of health care reform, for example, and the leaders of organized labor who threaten to retaliate by withholding their support from the moderates. These same groups put heavy pressure on Obama to move his agenda to the left.
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The president is surrounded by people who share Daley's grip on reality. But the picture is not so clear on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi's inner circle is made up of long-standing veterans of gerrymandered House districts, virtually immune from Election Day challenge, just as she is. The wants and needs of "the Democratic base" count heavily for them, and Daley's warnings may be resented or ignored.
As a loyal Democrat, Daley insisted in the closing paragraphs of his op-ed that his party is not doomed to ruin. It can still avoid anything more than a minimal setback in 2010, he said, if it will simply "acknowledge that the agenda of the party's most liberal supporters has not won the support of a majority of Americans -- and, based on that recognition ... steer a more moderate course on the key issues of the day, from health care to the economy to the environment to Afghanistan."
It will be up to Obama to steer the Democrats in that direction. No one on Capitol Hill is likely to lead such a change. The first test will come with the revisions of health care in the House-Senate conference. The larger tests will lie in Obama's 2010 State of the Union and budget messages.
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP