Much of the noise in Washington last week came from liberal Democrats furious that President Obama made a deal with Republicans to extend tax cuts for wealthy Americans. The liberals' anger was understandable; they weren't even in the room when the deal was made.
But Obama's compromise is likely to be popular among independents, and that has to matter almost as much for the president. After all, last month's election confirmed an ancient lesson in American politics: Most campaigns are won in the center, among independent and swing voters who are neither reliably liberal nor deeply conservative.
Obama claimed the presidency in 2008 not only because he won the hearts of liberal Democrats with his positions on healthcare and energy, but because he also attracted independents who hoped he could fix the economy and who liked his promise to change the way Washington worked.
So far, of course, Obama has accomplished neither of those goals. There's a real debate over who deserves blame for that, but independent voters didn't wait to sort it out; they turned decisively against Obama's Democrats. Exit polls found that 55% of independents voted Republican for the House of Representatives, a reversal from the 2006 midterm election, when 57% of independents voted Democratic.
If Obama and his party want the 2012 election to look different from this midterm, they need to convince independents that they're listening. The tax deal wasn't primarily an electoral ploy — it was a problem that had to be solved, and Obama's economists warned that a deadlock could have cost a million jobs — but it looks like a start.
What do the independents want?
A centrist think tank called Third Way polled 500 mostly independent voters who supported Obama in 2008 but switched sides to vote Republican last month. Here's what they found:
Most of the vote-switchers said economic issues drove their decision, but it wasn't just economic pessimism; it was also a loss of confidence in the president's party. Almost two-thirds said they didn't think the Democrats had a plan to get the economy back on track. A whopping 76% said they didn't think Democrats were serious about reducing the deficit.
Most worry that the federal government is getting too big. But that doesn't mean they were won over to the Republican program of deep budget cuts and lower taxes. Only 20% said they voted Republican because they thought the GOP had better ideas. And, remarkably, half said they were likely to switch back in 2012 and support Obama for president.
Those findings generally mirror national polls: Independent voters haven't fallen in love with the Republicans, but they have fallen out of love with the Democrats.
I saw all that ambivalence in a focus group of mostly middle-of-the-road voters in Philadelphia last week. They expressed a striking mix of disappointment in the president's performance and support for his good intentions. They wanted to see Obama work with Republicans, make some compromises and do whatever it takes to get the economy growing again. And most said they were willing to give him another chance before deciding how they'll vote in 2012.
"I was really wishing that [Obama] would be able to compromise with Congress, but it kind of seems like an impossible task," said Hugh Devlin, 44, a Republican who voted for Obama in 2008.
"I'd like to see both parties come together," agreed Robert Passantino, 67, an independent who voted for Obama in 2008.
Passantino and several others said they supported a compromise on taxes. But even voters who opposed extending tax cuts for the wealthy were willing to give Obama some leeway.
"I'm not thrilled about it," said Melanie Orpen, 38. "But I felt it showed that he had been listening to the voters and was prepared to make an appropriate compromise.... The Democratic Party [in Congress] isn't listening."
And even a liberal Democrat in the focus group slowly came around. "If he thinks that wasn't a battle worth fighting, I don't agree," said Suzen Wysor, 28, a social worker. "But he's got a lot of battles to fight. I'll trust his decision on this one."
Despite what polls say about voters' desire for smaller government and leaner budgets, those weren't hot-button issues. This group just wanted someone in Washington to get the economy working. Several even praised Obama for bailing out the auto industry — an initially unpopular decision that voters are increasingly seeing as a success.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the focus group for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said he drew two basic conclusions.
"The message from this group of people [to Washington] is that you guys all have to get to work," he said. "It's not just [about] a winner and a loser."
Second, he said, don't count Obama out, even among voters who went Republican this year. "We overstate it if we say the public's given up on him," Hart said.
Obama faces a difficult straddling act as he tries to reclaim independents without alienating liberals whose votes, donations and volunteer work he also needs. But given the lack, so far, of a credible challenger for the Democratic nomination — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Howard Dean and Russ Feingold have all said they aren't running — it shouldn't be impossible. And with the rightward drift among independent voters, it's the only way to win.
So expect more attempts to reach across the aisle on such issues as education reform and energy policy. Expect proposals for spending cuts and deficit reduction that won't please either side.
Liberals who hunger for nonstop confrontation with their Republican adversaries won't like it — but those fickle independent voters will.