The volume on the ongoing discussion about whether President Obama should face a primary challenge for the 2012 Democratic nomination is constantly being adjusted. When the president compromises on basic premises of progressivism, when he talks of putting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts "on the table," and sometimes when he simply seems unfocused and politically inept, the volume goes up. When the president stands strong, however, when he outlines plans for making the rich pay their fair share, when he promotes infrastructure and investment in he face of Republican intransigence, sometimes when he simply seems to "get" that there is a point where compromise becomes capitulation, the talk dies down.
After the president drew some lines in the sand last Monday, with a speech that laid out the case for genuine shared sacrifice by the wealthy and that seemed to reject the most extreme cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the "Primary Obama" volume dialed downward. As Michael Moore said on MSNBC the other day: "It doesn't take much" to renew the "hope" -- or, at least, the partisan fidelity -- that made Obama the most politically potent Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
But if the "Primary Obama" volume is turned down for the moment, the knob is still within hands reach. And there are more than a few Democrats who are only one "Super Committee" bargain away from spinning it toward "10."
Now, some of the talkers have begun to walk the walk. They're outlining a plan to run a slate of six primary "challengers" to the president, with each focusing on issues of ideological concern. The point of this initiative is not so much to displace the president as it is to move Obama and the party toward the left -- and in so doing to provide the themes and the energy to excite the Democratic base and draw new voters to the polls in 2012.
The steadiest proponent of a primary strategy has been consumer activist Ralph Nader. The former Green Party and independent presidential candidate was always encouraged to work within the Democratic Party. Now, he's doing so, not as an active candidate but as a candidate recruiter.