This is a pragmatic decision, given the state of the economy and an empowered right-wing opposition. “The president has very little margin for error if he’s going to have a realistic chance of getting reelected, and that’s abundantly clear to everyone in the party,” says veteran political handicapper Charlie Cook. Democrats look at the Tea Party and are horrified by the prospect of a Republican Party driven by its furthermost fringe capturing the White House. The two presidents in modern times defeated for reelection—Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican George H.W. Bush—each faced spirited primary challenges that divided their party and drained support in the November election.

Anyone contemplating a run against Obama must consider the consequences of not only defeating the president, but the likely repercussions to his or her own career. “If he were white, he would have a progressive challenger,” says Bill Schneider of the Democratic group Third Way. Because Obama is this historic figure, challenging him would hamper the prospects of anyone who wants a future in elective Democratic politics. “Blacks would be deeply offended by a challenge, and that’s no way to score points in the Democratic Party,” says Schneider. African-Americans are the Democrats’ most loyal constituency, and while they too are disappointed in what Obama has been able to accomplish, they are not going to abandon him.

“There’s a deep frustration without a solution,” says Popkin. “What candidate is able to say he will do more, or fix it? All they can say is, I would have been meaner or louder or I would do better saying no to Republicans.” The voices of protest bump up against the stubborn reality of divided government. It’s possible, but not probable, that Democrats will get the 24 seats they need to regain control of the House, but there’s a stronger possibility the Republicans will take the Senate; they only need four seats. “If they have the presidency, then the Tea Party is running the country,” says Schneider, and Democrats “can’t take any chance that will happen.”

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