Obama's Strongest Opposition May Come from Within–over Spoils, not Principle

Obama's Strongest Opposition May Come from Within–over Spoils, not Principle

I have seen more powerful men than Barack Obama fall. I worked in South Africa during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, when the ruling African National Congress (ANC) won 70% of the vote and earned the power to change his country’s constitution unilaterally. In 2005, I watched from the gallery as he told Parliament he was dismissing his deputy, Jacob Zuma, over allegations of corruption stemming from a lucrative arms deal.

Two years later, Mbeki was ousted by his party and forced to resign his presidency of the country. Zuma is now president, and the ruling party is both fractured by rivalries and weakened by the growing strength of the opposition Democratic Alliance. The growing current of dissent in South Africa is not, primarily, over principles or policies but over clashes over the spoils of power in a time of economic stagnation and turmoil.

President Obama holds unprecedented sway over his own party–and yet the first signs of internal tension are already bursting into the open. The news that he has turned his campaign into a permanent, non-profit organizing outfit to push for his policies has been greeted with frustration by members of the Democratic National Committee, who see the new “Organizing for Action” group as a competitor for fundraising dollars and power.

The Hill reports on the open dissatisfaction at the DNC

DNC members said they were caught off guard when the leaders of the president’s reelection team announced Obama for America was morphing into Organizing for Action (OFA), a nonprofit group that can take unlimited “soft money” donations….While the new group will seek to go toe to toe with GOP outside groups like Crossroads GPS, some Democrats aren’t pleased that Obama didn’t fold his powerful grassroots operation back into the DNC.

The looming fights over spending, deficits and debts also threatens the coalition that re-elected President Obama. The Obama administration designed a sequester whose non-defense cuts would scare as many voters and interest groups as possible. It expected that sequester to be canceled; now there is a strong chance that it may go through. If it does, interest groups and lobbies may find themselves fighting each other–and Obama.

Many of the president’s strongest backers were prepared to wait until the election was over to demand their money’s worth. Hollywood, for example, watched the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in frustration–and patiently waited for Obama to return to office. Now, having won its tax benefits in the fiscal cliff talks, it may revive SOPA again.

Yet it will have to compete with other interest groups in the Democrats’ coalition, who believe that the president was not aggressive enough in his first term and are no longer willing to accept the idea that compromise with Republicans is necessary. The rush to redeem promises made by Obama to each of these constituencies will likely increase friction within Democratic ranks–just as Republicans are pressing their case on debt.

That is why the most important opposition to Obama may come from within–some on matters of principle, such as the loose alliance of liberal and pro-Israel groups opposing Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense; and others on pure self-interest. Republican opposition will still be critical, especially given the effective veto the House still holds. But it will likely be given a boost by Democrats’ own greed and impatience.