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Liberal Democrats Could Complicate Obama's Agenda


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President Barack Obama's political challenges on health care reform and future U.S. involvement in Afghanistan are expected to grow in the weeks ahead. The president's political skills will be put to the test as he deals with a reinvigorated Republican opposition and an increasingly vocal liberal faction in his own Democratic Party disenchanted with his efforts to move to the political center.

In political terms, President Obama may soon find himself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

On one hand, congressional Republicans are pressing the president to beef up U.S. forces to ensure a victory over al-Qaida and the Taliban.

"If we abandon Afghanistan, it will return to a safe haven for the Taliban and al-Qaida to plan and execute more attacks on Americans," said Republican House leader, Congressman Boehner of Ohio.

But the president also faces growing concerns from liberal Democrats about what they see as a deepening involvement in Afghanistan.

"I think there are a significant number of people in the country who have, and I don't know the exact percentages, that have questions about deepening our military involvement in Afghanistan," said Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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The Obama administration is engaged in a review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and worries on the left about the U.S. getting militarily bogged down will be part of the broader political debate in Washington.

Tom DeFrank, a longtime political observer with the New York Daily News and a regular guest on VOA's Issues in the News program, says a decision to send additional U.S. troops could ignite opposition from liberal Democrats in Congress.

"That will alienate a lot of the Democratic left who wanted the U.S. out of Iraq and would like to see us out of Afghanistan as well. It's a real political problem," DeFrank said.

Mr. Obama also faces the potential for liberal discontent on his top domestic priority, enacting health care reform.

The president appealed to lawmakers from both parties to work together on health care during his recent address to a joint session of Congress.

"The time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action," Mr. Obama said.

Many liberal Democrats believed that Mr. Obama's election last year presented the best opportunity yet to pass health care legislation that would include universal insurance coverage for all Americans and the establishment of a government insurance program to compete with private insurance companies.

But the president has run into stiff opposition from conservative Republicans, and even moderate Democrats now believe it is likely that the president will have to settle for a compromise bill that is sure to disappoint his liberal supporters.

"A much diluted bill and one that will leave many of the liberal Democrats unhappy because they thought this was their chance to get sweeping change," said analyst Norman Ornstein.

David Wasserman, an expert with the Cook Political Report in Washington, says the health care debate has put the president in a classic political bind.

"And Obama really has a choice to make here. Does he want to fight a war on the front of liberal Democrats, or does he want to fight a war to win Republican support in the Senate and win conservative Democratic support in the Senate," Wasserman said.

In the end, many experts predict that liberal Democrats will back down in the health care debate in the hope of passing some sort of reform that will help the president and Democrats in next year's midterm congressional elections, and in the next presidential election in 2012.

John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute spoke on VOA's Encounter program.

"The key votes are probably in the Senate and among conservative Democrats because those are the ones you need to just get you a majority. And there will be grumbling on the left if you want to get something done, but they ultimately need almost all of their party because they are going to get almost no Republicans to come along with them. So I think if they get something done it will be more appealing to the moderate Democrats than to the liberals," Fortier said.

Mr. Obama won last year's election with the help of independent and moderate voters. But recent public opinion polls show him losing support within those groups and many experts say his ability to win back centrist voters could determine whether he will emerge victorious in the health care debate.

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