WASHINGTON -- It's possible the debt-ceiling debate will turn out badly for President Barack Obama. For now, however, it may be helping his image with a vital group: independent voters, who have decided the last several elections.
He's certainly playing to them.
"It's important for the American people that everybody in this town set politics aside, that everybody in this town set our individual interests aside, and we try to do some tough stuff. And I've already taken some heat from my party for being willing to compromise," Obama said Friday as he delivered a message to Republicans worried about angering the GOP's right flank.
"My expectation and hope is, is that everybody, in the coming days, is going to be willing to compromise," he said pointedly.
Over the past week, Obama repeatedly has positioned himself as someone willing to make political sacrifices to reach a bipartisan accord and avoid a potentially disastrous default on U.S. obligations. He says some trims are needed to Social Security and Medicare, the safety-net programs dear to liberal Democrats. He also says an eventual package must include some tax increases, but only on the wealthiest Americans.
The reactions from GOP and Democratic leaders – they are worried about angering their conservative and liberal bases with a deal to raise the debt limit – are boosting Obama's image as a comparative centrist, a posture that could appeal to independent voters in next year's presidential election.
Republicans, especially in the House, are insisting on no tax increases at all as part of a debt-and-spending deal. Critics call it an extreme position, noting that U.S. tax revenues are at near-historic lows as a share of the overall economy.
Meanwhile, top Democrats including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have opposed Obama's proposal to scale back cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients, among other changes to entitlement programs.
People following the debate know that Obama "has been more than willing to make hard sacrifices to reach a compromise," said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a Democratic-leaning group that pushes for bipartisan accords and moderate policies.
No president can totally avoid blame if a debt crisis occurs and the economy falters, Bennett said. But independent voters, who typically dislike partisan quarrels, are more likely to be drawn to Obama's approach, he said.
"They say polarization is bad for the country," Bennett said, "and extreme ideology is a road to nowhere."
Polling by the Pew Research Center suggests that unaligned voters are increasingly alarmed about the prospects of failing to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2. Their mood could help Obama next year if he can build and sustain an image as an accord-seeking leader trying to protect average Americans.
Two months ago, Pew found that independents, by 49 percent to 34 percent, were more fearful that raising the debt ceiling would lead to higher government spending, as opposed to chiefly fearing the harmful effects of keeping the ceiling unchanged. This month, independents split evenly on the question.
Both parties prize independent voters, who have proven volatile. They voted heavily for Obama and other Democrats in 2008. Last fall, they swung just as heavily toward Republicans, handing them control of the House and several governorships and state legislatures.
Democratic strategists believe Obama alienated many independent voters during the fierce battle over health care in 2009 and 2010. As the debate turned increasingly partisan, Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress used tough parliamentary tactics to pass the massive legislation with no Republican help.
Republicans assailed the Democrats' maneuvers in last fall's elections, to great effect.
Democratic insiders hope Republicans now are losing their grip on unaligned voters by making a similar mistake: taking a no-compromise stand on the federal debt issue, and prompting taunts that they favor millionaires over working-class people.
But Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, says Democrats are overstating Obama's chances to attract independent voters during the debt ceiling showdown.
"The Republican leadership in Congress is effectively laying this on Obama's doorstep," Reed said. "He's the one who has recommended budgets with deficits as far as the eye can see. It's Obama's issue, it's his fault."
Reed said some Republican presidential candidates who have distanced themselves from GOP lawmakers on the debt and spending issue "are going to have to move right on this" to appeal to the party's caucus and primary voters.
That's precisely the step that Democratic strategists believe will help Obama in next year's general election, when independents will look for candidates focused on solutions, not party loyalty.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned of such an outcome last week, saying a failure to raise the debt ceiling might be blamed on Republicans, thus helping Obama and other Democrats in 2012.
Obama would say Republicans made the economy worse, McConnell told radio host Laura Ingraham, and "it is an argument that he could have a good chance of winning."
White House aides say Obama cares more about the nation's welfare than his re-election. But the president undoubtedly has eyes on both the current debate and the 2012 campaigns.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that at the end of a testy White House exchange with the president on Wednesday, Obama told him: "Eric, don't call my bluff. I'm going to the American people with this."
The "American people" who are up for grabs on Election Day are mostly independents. Obama's allies hope they see the president as the adult in the room in the debt ceiling confrontation, and will reward that role 16 months from now.