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BRODER: Democrats bail on Obama, and it may get worse

In the last year or so of George W. Bush's second term, commentators used to talk a lot about the conspicuous scarcity of other Republicans willing to stand up and defend him. I never thought we'd see Barack Obama face the same problem before his first year was over.

But as Obama's approval scores — 50 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll — sink, it is getting harder and harder to find a full-throated supporter of the president.

You need go no further from here than the op-ed page of Thursday's Washington Post to see what I mean. Time was, and not all that long ago, when the Post was thought of as the "liberal paper" in Washington, a reliable advocate for the kind of policies pursued by Democratic presidents.

Well, in the lead article on the op-ed page, a well-known member of the president's party said that Obama's prize piece of domestic legislation, the health care reform bill, has been so compromised that as it stands, "this bill would do more harm than good to the future of America."

"If I were a senator," wrote Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee during Obama's run for the White House, "I would not vote for the current health care bill."

Dean, who had been signaling his apostasy for some time, was far from alone in clobbering Obama, just as the president and Senate leaders were struggling to line up the 60 votes needed to pass the ever-changing legislation.

Across the Post's prized real estate, conservative columnist George F. Will gloated that the more Obama argued for the bill, the less the public supported it. And from across the aisle, Matthew Dowd, a former Democrat who served as chief strategist for President George W. Bush, offered congressional Democrats the free advice that they would be better off themselves if the Republicans managed to block Obama's bill.

It was left to my friend, E.J. Dionne Jr., one of Obama's most passionate journalistic advocates, to tell the Democrats that they ought to mind their manners — and their words. The increasing flak between moderate and liberal Democrats "is a recipe for political catastrophe," Dionne warned, his tone suggesting that he thinks the Democrats are too far gone to heed him.

But this wasn't the worst I saw that day. The worst came in a news report of the year-end news conference by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Asked how she would deal with next year's looming tests of Congressional Democratic support for Obama's decision to send 30,000 more U.S. troops into the Afghanistan struggle, she said, "the president's going to have to make his case" himself. Reminding reporters that she had told lawmakers in June, when funding was approved for 17,000 additional troops, that it would be the last time she would ever lobby her members to back such a step, she made it absolutely clear she felt no obligation of party loyalty to support Obama on the most important national security decision he has made.

The liberal legislator from San Francisco could not have been plainer if she had added, "You're on your own, buster."

With this as an example from the No. 1 Democrat on Capitol Hill, one has to wonder why liberal Democrats are so furious about senators such as Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson negotiating their own deals with the White House on the health care bill.

I think Obama deserves more help than he is getting from his fellow Democrats in Congress, given the boost he provided them in the last election, the difficulty of the problems he inherited, and the stiff-arm he has received from the Republicans.

But the reality is that, the closer the midterm election comes, when they will be on the ballot and he will not, the more members of Congress — and not just Pelosi — will judge what is best for themselves and the less they'll be swayed by Obama.

He may feel lonely now, but he ain't seen nothing yet.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at davidbroder@washpost.com.