Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com. Read his column here.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. says President Obama has lost points with his left-wing supporters on health care.
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- It's political déjà vu. It seems like just yesterday that hard-core conservatives were griping about a Republican president who wasn't dependably conservative.
The complaints got so loud that, leading up to the 2004 election, there was talk of Republicans running a candidate from the right against their own president on the grounds that the incumbent wasn't conservative enough and was too eager to seek compromises with Democrats.
Now hard-core liberals are griping about a Democratic president who isn't dependably liberal. The complaints are getting so loud that there is talk, leading up to the 2012 election, of Democrats running a candidate against their own president from the left on the grounds that the incumbent isn't liberal enough and is too eager to seek compromises with Republicans.
George W. Bush was often described as a compassionate conservative who butted heads with Republicans in Washington even before he got to town. During the 2000 election, Bush remarked that congressional Republicans were, through a series of spending cuts, "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor."
House Whip Tom DeLay took offense and dismissively accused his fellow Texan of not understanding how Washington worked. During his presidency, Bush was criticized by conservatives for adopting what they considered liberal policies on immigration, education funding and growing the size of government.
Likewise, Barack Obama is emerging as a pragmatic liberal who is willing to challenge members of his own party and left-wing special interest groups in pursuit of reforms he believes in.
Obama has challenged teachers unions by stressing accountability in public schools, pushed back against immigrant rights groups by continuing the Bush policies of workplace raids and speedier deportations, flummoxed civil libertarians by continuing some of the Bush anti-terror policies having to do with detentions and domestic surveillance, and angered the anti-war left by increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan.
But health care reform could be the last straw. The main sticking point to Congress passing a reform package has turned out to be something as simple as whether the government should provide a public option for people who can't afford health insurance. Liberals say absolutely yes. Conservatives say absolutely not. Moderates, as usual, are on the fence.
As Obama made clear in his address to Congress on Wednesday, he supports a public option. Yet he also isn't willing to sacrifice a deal if he can't get one. The president will take half a loaf rather than walk away with an empty plate.
But, frankly, that won't satisfy the most left-wing members of the Democratic Party. Several liberal Democratic House members, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus, have drawn a line in the sand and said: "No public option, no bill." They refuse to negotiate, and they don't feel they should have to, because Democrats control majorities in the House and the Senate.
True enough. But what the left-wing hardliners are missing is that the Democrats in Congress are so fractured, with such divergent views on health care, that they have the entire ideological spectrum represented in their own party.
Despite feeble attempts by the media and Democratic strategists to portray Republicans as the obstacle to health care reform, it has been clear all along that Obama's main problem is trying to please both liberals and conservatives within the Democratic Party.
So, the president used his speech to Congress to offer a little rhetorical flourishing to each camp. Obama made hash of his position by assuring the left that he wanted a public option, then assuring the right that he could live without a public option, and then coming back around and assuring the left that he wouldn't give up on getting a public option.
Obama said this: "I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice. And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need." But earlier, discussing a public option, he said this: "It is only one part of my plan. ...To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it. The public option is only a means to that end -- and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal."
It's no wonder that so many in the liberal base are falling out of love with the president. So much so that there is even faint talk of an insurrection if Obama doesn't straighten up and fly left. Recently, during an appearance on a cable TV show, Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson discussed the political costs for Obama if the public option is dropped from the health care bill. They included the possibility of a primary challenge in the 2012 presidential election. Said Robinson, "You don't want to see the progressive caucus in a foul mood."
For a pragmatic liberal trying to get back to the center and convince voters that he doesn't want to represent the left wing or the right wing but the whole bird, having to fight off rebellion in his own party over the health care debate wouldn't be all bad. In fact, it could be just what the doctor ordered.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.