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In battle for political center, Obama has an edge

President has already broken from his base, while Republicans are indebted to theirs.

January 08, 2011|By Paul West, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — As divided government dawned in Washington this week, President Obama appeared to gain the edge in battling Republicans for the political center.

The high-stakes competition for the middle has proved exceptionally elusive in recent years, with independent voters repeatedly, and abruptly, shifting their allegiance from one party to the other.

"The political fight in America is always, ultimately, about who owns the center," said Mark McKinnon, a media consultant whose clients included President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "Right now, it's jump ball for the middle."

Obama, an avid basketball player, revised his playbook — and lineup — for the new Washington game. He shuffled his staff, removing longtime loyalists and adding seasoned players best known for their skill at backroom deal-cutting in Washington.

Introducing his new chief economic advisor Friday, Obama said one reason he chose Gene Sperling was that "he's done this before." He credited Sperling with helping negotiate last month's tax cut with Republicans, a turning point in Obama's presidency.

Obama's new Republican opposition — the GOP-run House — received positive marks from politicians in both parties this week. New House Speaker John A. Boehner (R- Ohio), in a restrained and relatively smooth debut, was careful not to claim a governing mandate from last fall's election, a sign that he'd learned from past Republican mistakes.

But presidents, with their ability to dominate attention, enjoy a built-in advantage over institutions, like Congress, where leadership is more diffuse.

With the recent tax cut deal, Obama had already taken a major step: He managed to move away from his liberal base while avoiding serious talk of a primary challenge. Boehner faces a much tougher task. He must keep a loosely knit conservative coalition behind him without alienating independent swing voters.

"Independent voters are now the largest voting bloc, but they're not monolithic," said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

He said Boehner can't lose sight of the need to control the center, so he'll have to be careful not to get on the wrong side of independents.

"That's what this fight will be about. But at the same time, you have to please a pretty rabid base," Davis said, adding that "tea party" voters "were easy to get when you were in opposition to Obamacare, opposition to Obama and everything he was doing. They're harder to get when you are in the governing mode."

Among the wider public, polls show Americans "want Obama to take the lead," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank. "That may mean they worry about the Republicans going too far."

Obama's standing, which hit new lows in the weeks before the November congressional election, has been edging higher. His job approval rating recently hit 50% in Gallup's tracking poll for the first time since spring.

The president has been conveying "a much more optimistic tone" than he did in the fall, "when he seemed so dour and downbeat," Bowman said. She noted that Obama's public mood swing corresponded with his bounce in the polls, and she likened it to the positive response of voters to President Reagan's sunny optimism.

A rise in popularity could fortify Obama's hand in bargaining with congressional Republicans. If Friday's drop in the jobless rate is a sign of a brighter economic future, it would help prevent the president's poll numbers from slumping.

An improving economy "lifts all boats," said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist. "But his is the biggest boat."

Voter perceptions of economic trends — and of which party is seen as the stronger economic manager — will be key indicators heading into the 2012 presidential election. This winter's budget fights are likely to shape public impressions. Obama began his shift to the center with the tax-and-stimulus agreement with Republicans, which angered many liberals but did not permanently alienate them.

He also denounced what he described as "sanctimonious" critics on the left, a sign that he wanted to be seen as a national leader rather than a partisan figure.

This week, the president engineered a White House shakeup that reflects other lessons learned during his first two years.

New Chief of Staff William Daley, most recently a JPMorgan Chase executive, is part of a renewed White House outreach to big business, which cheered Daley's appointment. Dismayed liberal activists protested, but Howard Dean, a leading voice on the left, strongly praised the choice of a "grown-up" who could help Obama.

The changes indicate Obama intends to bring his presidency "more in line with more of the country than appeared to be the case in the first two years," said Don Baer, director of White House communications in the Clinton administration, in which both Daley and Sperling served.

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