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.
Presidential historian Stephen Hess said Mr. Obama may be best off following the Clinton model.
“Find out where the country wants to be, and get there first. That’s what Clinton did,” Mr. Hess said.
But pollster John Zogby said Mr. Obama need not panic, although he should consider seeking counsel from prominent Republicans.
“The president has shown that he can appeal to moderates and independents. That is how he won. He should be able to refocus his agenda on bridges and bring in a new White House that can command respect from both sides,” Mr. Zogby said, suggesting he seek advice from former Rep. Lee Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, and former Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican.
The president did offer an appeal to find “common ground” with his Republican adversaries - the same offer repeatedly extended on the 2008 campaign trail, which didn’t materialize during legislative efforts dominated by Democrats on Capitol Hill.
During last spring and summer, massive grass-roots protests cropped up, with “tea party” activists crying out against the president’s health care reform bill and deficit spending. After two November election losses in Virginia and New Jersey, Massachusetts last week became the third state in three months where independents rejected a Democrat and voted Republican. The three states all voted for Mr. Obama in 2008.
An exit poll by Rasmussen Reports found that 73 percent of “unenrolled,” or independent, voters in solidly Democratic Massachusetts cast their ballots for populist candidate Scott Brown, a state senator who campaigned in a pickup truck to win what he called “the people’s seat.” It had been held by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy since 1962.
The nationwide shift from party affiliation to independent has been under way for years. Fifty years ago, 47 percent of voters identified with the Democrats and 28 percent with the Republicans, while just 23 percent were independents. A Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday showed the numbers are almost reversed, with 40 percent of voters describing themselves as independent, 31 percent as Democrats and 24 percent as Republicans.
The ad hoc group moves freely between parties - the same independents that put Mr. Obama into office re-elected his predecessor, Mr. Bush, to a second term.
“They’re conflicted centrists,” said Andrew Kohut of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. “They are closer to the Democrats on social issues, but they’re closer to the Republicans in being skeptical about big government.”
With the midterm congressional elections just nine months away, Mr. Obama’s coattails will be severely tested, and already, Democrats are fearful - two prominent senators, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, abandoned re-election campaigns in the unfriendly political climate.
Mr. Obama has found himself pushed by liberals in Congress, who have controlled his agenda on Capitol Hill. But while conservatives have been angered by the president, liberals feel they have been let down by the scant accomplishments of his first year, so much so that liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on Wednesday called the president a “grave disappointment.”
Mr. Avlon, whose new book, “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America” came out this week, also said Mr. Obama may do well to follow Mr. Reagan’s example and stay the course.
“He’s definitely going to lose independent voters going into the fall, but he has more than enough time to pull himself out of this, to re-establish that connection with independent voters,” he said. Still, he added: “Obama has a chance, but it’s later than they might think.”