ANALYSIS: Obama woos back displeased independent voters

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President Obama is repositioning himself in a new political landscape, intent on finding a way to win back the independent voters who have been abandoning him in droves since helping fuel his White House victory a year ago.

He may be too late.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” said John Avlon, author of “Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics.”

“Independents started to break with him in the spring, directly in reaction to the unprecedented spending that was coming out of the Democratic Congress and the Obama administration,” he said. “They resent the fact that, after all of President Obama’s post-partisan campaign rhetoric … there’s been a real gap between the president’s rhetoric and his record.”

On Election Day 2008, independents swung for Mr. Obama, but his popularity among the fickle group has dropped 11 points to 41 percent since then - and some 20 points from the euphoric weeks after he took office, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll.

With his State of the Union address Wednesday night, the president set out a populist-toned reiteration of his agenda designed to please the centrist and working-class clique of independents - focusing on the hobbled economy and job creation, along with a stern rebuke of Wall Street excess and profligate federal spending.

But he faces a sour mood across the country that has helped stall his top agenda item, a health care overhaul, and has congressional Democrats fearing major midterm losses, which would further undermine their agenda.

While Mr. Obama continues to blame former President George W. Bush for the problems he inherited, many Americans now believe he owns the economy. Although they don’t blame him for the problems, they do hold him accountable for not solving them.

That leaves the president two choices.

“You can follow Bill Clinton’s example and move to the center and work harder, or you can follow [Ronald] Reagan’s example and stay the course,” said Dan Schnur, a political analyst with the University of Southern California who worked on the 2000 presidential campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain.

Both presidents suffered major midterm defeats in their first term in office; Republicans lost 27 seats in 1982, and Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in 1994.

“Reagan believed that if he stuck with his original plan, the economy would come back and so would the voters. Reagan overruled a lot of his advisers who wanted him to adjust, and it worked,” Mr. Schnur said.

Mr. Obama is leaning toward the Reagan playbook. He insisted Wednesday night that there is a way forward on the stalled health care overhaul and cap-and-trade energy plans his administration failed to ram through a Congress controlled by his party.

“I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should the people in this chamber,” he said, referring to people facing escalating health care costs and the uninsured.

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