Obama’s efforts to woo independents derailed by debt-ceiling agreement

The unpopular debt-ceiling deal has significantly hampered President Obama’s effort to win over independent voters.

Since Democrats were thumped in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama repeatedly has sought to burnish his reputation with independents, often at the sake of his Democratic base.

Yet a Gallup poll this week found Obama trailing not only the two leading GOP candidates — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — among independent voters, but long-shot candidate Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) as well. The poll found that Obama leads Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), but only by a 6-point margin, 48 percent to 42 percent.

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The results suggest that opposition to a second term for Obama is strengthening, and that even candidates considered too far outside the mainstream, such as Paul and Bachmann, would have a puncher’s chance against him in the general election.

Separately, Democrats disappointed with the debt-ceiling deal and other decisions by the White House have repeatedly blasted the administration during the August congressional recess.

Black lawmakers on a jobs tour led by the Congressional Black Caucus have accused the administration of not paying enough attention to their communities, while liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said the president should announce his jobs plan now rather than after Labor Day.

Ross Baker, a professor at Rutgers University who studies the presidency, said Obama didn’t strengthen his position with any identifiable constituency during the debt-ceiling debate.

“He lost his hero status with liberals, if he hadn’t previously with the extension of Bush tax cuts,” Baker said, referring to a December deal that extended all of the tax rates approved by former President George W. Bush. That bipartisan agreement was also seen as an effort to win over independents.

“His willingness not to press for revenues did not help him with persuadable GOP leaners, and he is just anathema to conservatives — and would have been, irrespective of the outcome,” Baker said.

The reason Obama has sought out independents is clear.

Obama won the independent vote in 2008 by 8 percentage points, but independents swung to Republicans in the 2010 congressional elections. Since then, the president has made a series of decisions intended to win back independent voters.

Obama broke his campaign promise to not extend the Bush tax cuts for families with incomes of more than $250,000, reasoning it was better for the economy to take a deal that extended all of the Bush-era tax cuts. Some Democrats would have preferred letting all the tax rates rise, and blaming the GOP.

Furthermore, the president showed a willingness to agree to entitlement reforms during the debt-ceiling talks, another effort thought to appeal to independents that angered the left.

A bus tour last week that traveled through mostly white, rural areas in three Midwestern states was also an effort to speak to independents. During the tour, Obama ripped Congress.

Jason Johnson, a political professor at Hiram College in Ohio, said the White House was correct in thinking that independents would value the deal. The problem, Johnson said, is that the public soured on the debt accord because it was quickly followed by the Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the U.S. credit rating.

“He ends up having a deal which the left is unhappy with, and you still get a downgrade, which is really the thing independents care about,” Johnson said.

The chances of Obama’s reelection are “going to be strongly influenced by the GOP nominee,” Baker said. “If it is someone who can be spun and framed as a fanatic, he can survive.”

Following the death of Osama bin Laden in early May, many political experts predicted that Obama would win a second term. At the time, Intrade, an online prediction market, set the chances of Obama winning in 2012 at 70 percent. Nearly four months later, Intrade now pegs Obama’s chances at 50 percent.