Debt crisis may help Obama woo independent voters
It's possible the debt-ceiling debate will turn out badly for US president Barack Obama. For now, however, it may be helping his image with a vital group: independent voters, who have decided the last several elections. He's certainly playing to them.
"It's important for the American people that everybody in this town set politics aside, that everybody in this town set our individual interests aside, and we try to do some tough stuff. And I've already taken some heat from my party for being willing to compromise," Obama said on Friday as he delivered a message to Republicans worried about angering their party's right.
Over the past week, Obama repeatedly has positioned himself as someone willing to make political sacrifices to reach a bipartisan accord and avoid a potentially disastrous default on US debt. He says some trims are needed to social security and Medicare, the safety-net programmes for the elderly that are dear to liberal Democrats. He also says an eventual package must include some tax increases, but only on the wealthiest Americans.
The reactions from Republican and Democratic leaders - they are worried about angering their conservative and liberal bases with a deal to raise the debt limit - are boosting Obama's image as a comparative centrist, a posture that could appeal to independent voters in next year's presidential election.
Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, are insisting on no tax increases at all. Critics call it an extreme position. Meanwhile, top Democrats, including house minority leader Nancy Pelosi, have opposed Obama's proposal to scale back cost-of-living increases for retirees.
People following the debate know that Obama "has been more than willing to make hard sacrifices to reach a compromise", said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a Democratic-leaning group that pushes for bipartisan moderation.
No president can totally avoid blame if a debt crisis occurs, Bennett said. But independent voters, who typically dislike partisan quarrels, are more likely to be drawn to Obama's approach.
Polls suggest that unaligned voters are alarmed about failing to raise the debt ceiling by 2 August. Their mood could help Obama next year.
Both parties prize independent voters. They voted heavily for Obama and other Democrats in 2008, but last autumn they swung just as heavily toward Republicans.
Democratic strategists believe Obama alienated many independent voters during the fierce battle over health care in 2009 and 2010. As the debate turned increasingly partisan, Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress used tough parliamentary tactics to push the massive legislation through with no Republican help. Republicans assailed the Democrats' manoeuvres in last year's elections, to great effect.Democratic insiders hope Republicans now are losing their grip on unaligned voters by making a similar mistake: taking a no-compromise stand on the federal debt issue, and prompting taunts that they favour millionaires over working-class people.
White House aides say Obama cares more about the nation's welfare than his re-election. But the president undoubtedly has eyes on both the current debate and the 2012 campaigns.
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