Wall Street Journal
By Colleen McCain Nelson, Janet Hook and Sara Murray
January 22, 2013
President Barack Obama's sweeping liberal agenda, as laid out in Monday's inauguration speech, has some centrist Democrats worried the focus on issues such as gun control and climate change could dilute efforts to boost the economy and create jobs.
Mr. Obama's speech was a call to action on Democratic social issues, focusing in part on civil rights, gay rights and efforts to help low-income Americans.
But parts of his agenda—which includes controlling gun violence, preserving his health-care law and writing more pro-immigrant laws—could prove a tough sell, even with some Democratic members of Congress.
"The reality is that in the few remaining swing districts we have left, you are going to be unable to get the moderates to go with you if you push the agenda too far to the left," said Dennis Cardoza, a former California congressman and a moderate Democrat. He said prioritizing the economy and immigration was the best course.
Mr. Obama won re-election with a coalition largely consisting of minorities, women and younger voters—who, surveys show, support government action on social and economic issues. That gives him freedom to push his party in a way that some say takes it to the political left, in contrast to former President Bill Clinton, who moved it to the center in his second term.
"The era of liberalism is back," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said on Tuesday.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday dismissed suggestions that Mr. Obama's speech showed him embracing a more liberal agenda.
"I hardly think that pursuit of equal rights, pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform, pursuit of sensible policies that deal with climate change and enhance our energy independence are ideological," he said.
But the president's agenda could put him at odds with some Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014, many of whom come from GOP-leaning states.
Of the 21 Democratic-held seats up in 2014, seven are in states that Mr. Obama lost in 2012, including five seats deemed competitive in early ratings by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. They are held by Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Those Democrats tend to be far more supportive of gun rights and—especially in the cases of Ms. Landrieu and Mr. Begich—of the oil industry than the White House is, and they could oppose measures to control gun violence or to limit global warming.
The Obama agenda will put pressure on these Democrats, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Report. "Some will have more to worry about than others," she said.
Jim Kessler, a co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said the political center had shifted on many of the social issues that the president highlighted. Mr. Obama's views on same-sex marriage, immigration reform and gun control match up with most Americans', he said.
Mr. Kessler deemed the speech more liberal, not for the issues addressed but for those largely omitted—namely efforts to grapple with the shaky finances of entitlement programs and to boost economic growth. While Mr. Obama made brief mention of Medicare and Medicaid, he offered little insight about how the country could afford to continue these programs.
"We're hoping for something different out of the State of the Union," Mr. Kessler said.
Many other Democrats in Congress offered little response to the president's social-policy agenda Tuesday, saying they remained hopeful his address to Congress on Feb. 12 would offer details of economic policy.
"The more that we're focused on economic growth and economic empowerment…then you have a chance of more bipartisan agreement," said Rep. Ron Kind (D., Wis.), chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, a centrist group in Congress.
But Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, foresaw little political risk for Democrats facing re-election, who may well vote against elements of the president's agenda. "Democrats in red states will do what they believe is best in their state," Mr. Canter said.
Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Mr. Obama's focus on social issues was politically unhelpful to his own party.
"Political observers are making the mistake of looking at the speech through the prism of Democrats versus Republicans," he said. "Many of the issues he highlighted will come down to Democrats versus Democrats."
Outside of Washington, though, some state Democratic leaders disagreed with the suggestion that the president was pulling his party to the left. Richard Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said he's a fiscally conservative gun owner who didn't view the president's speech as liberal.
"What he's talking about reflects the realities of America," he said.