WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's performance in the recent debt-ceiling drama may help him position himself as a centrist for the 2012 campaign, but it's strained his already-fragile relations with Congress.
"He comes out of this the way he wanted to: a reasonable guy, a compromiser who doesn't see things in red and blue," said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
But those same traits aren't what many lawmakers are seeking from a president: They're accustomed to strong direction and leadership from the White House. And that could mean trouble in his relations with Congress in the months ahead, as Obama champions more deficit reduction and other priorities.
"I was puzzled by why he didn't step forward sooner," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the moderate Republicans whom Democrats courted in the past when Obama needed bipartisan help. "It would have helped him politically, and would have been the right thing for a president to do."
Obama sought this week to turn his focus to jobs creation. With the economy still sputtering, he's pushing Congress to extend unemployment insurance and a payroll tax break. He's also talked about patent restructuring, passing a set of trade deals and pledging support for providing loans to private companies to repair roads, bridges and airports.
But progress on those fronts may be complicated by the shortage of money for new programs, freshly skeptical Democrats in Congress and Republicans who feel empowered by the concessions they extracted from the president in the deficit-reduction package. The debt plan, which could slice at least $2.1 trillion off budget deficits over the next decade, includes no new revenue, an important concession to the GOP.
Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York, which conducts the McClatchy-Marist Poll, said Obama wasn't doing anything he hadn't previously. During the 2009-10 health care debate, for instance, the president backed off the progressive goal of ensuring a public option.
"What he's able to capture is the political terrain he wants, which is deficit hawk with some independence," Miringoff said. "He doesn't always want to fight the wars on the liberal-conservative continuum. He wants to be in the middle."
But can Congress let the president do that without him looking weak?
Obama's cool relations with lawmakers stem partly from them not knowing him well. Though he was the first incumbent U.S. senator in 48 years to win the presidency, Obama had been in the Senate only four years — and he spent half that time on the campaign trail — when he won the White House.
As president, Obama delegated most congressional negotiations to Vice President Joe Biden, a 36-year, highly regarded Senate veteran, and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, whom he'd drafted from the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives.
In early 2009 they wooed moderate Republican senators whose votes they needed for the economic stimulus plan. Then on Obama's second major initiative, overhauling the health care system, the White House let Congress set the agenda, leading to an agonizing series of procedural tie-ups and, ultimately, party-line votes to approve the controversial plan.
Last December, Obama angered liberal lawmakers when he appeared quick to agree to extend the Bush-era tax cuts — including retention of lower tax rates for the wealthy, which he'd opposed. Biden was instrumental in sealing the deal, which he struck with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Then in the spring Republicans threatened to shut down the government unless the president accepted spending cuts in the six months that remained of fiscal 2011, and Obama agreed to $38 billion, igniting more grousing in Democratic ranks that he'd gotten rolled.
Today the Democratic left is angry again — notably, that the White House accepted a debt deal without any new revenues to balance steep spending cuts.
The legislation, which the president signed Tuesday, requires initial deficit reductions of $917 billion over 10 years.
Next, a 12-person special bipartisan congressional committee will recommend up to $1.5 trillion in additional savings. Obama says this could include major changes in the tax code. But the president may have little say: The White House has no seat at the committee's table.
"The bill institutionalized a gang of 12," said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
Still, the White House argues that the legislation, while "not perfect," is a lot more than "just averting the catastrophe," Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
Polls and some analysts suggest that the public also may see it that way.
"It gives Obama a claim to be a moderate, cutting a deal between parties that have stark differences," said John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political analyst. "He can make the claim that this was not everything he wanted, but he was able to get it done."
Some analysts suggest that the president handled a difficult situation as well as he could with the 87 freshmen House Republicans. Most were elected with the backing of the grass-roots, conservative tea party movement, and they showed that they were willing to buck their own congressional leadership, not to mention Obama.
"The debt deal tells us more about the Congress today than it does about the president,'' Loomis said. "Congress is just so different these days."
Congress is more polarized and partisan than it was even a decade ago. And thanks to the ubiquitous Internet and 24-hour cable-TV news, lawmakers often feel pressure to be uncompromising.
"Everything now is so public," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group. That makes deal-making difficult.
The left demands higher taxes on the wealthy. The right insists on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Neither is in any mood to compromise.
The left is angry with Obama — again — just as it was irked that he deployed America's military assets to Libya, that he's winding down the war in Afghanistan too slowly for its liking and that he gave in too quickly last year, in its view, on extending Bush's tax cuts. While 95 House Democrats voted for the debt plan this week, 95 others voted no.
"Why do we not have anything in this bill that makes millionaires and billionaires, who can afford to pay a little bit more, pay a little bit more?" asked Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., called the debt deal a vote "between our conscience and our president."
Some observers suggest that Obama's positioning was aimed squarely at 2012.
"If the left wing was happy with Barack Obama, Barack Obama would be in political trouble," Geer said. "He's going to run as a moderate and try to get a lot of independent votes, and compromise is probably helpful for that."
White House advisers noted that any debt-ceiling compromise would fail to make everyone happy, and they maintain that they're on the right track with Congress and the public.
The president himself acknowledged unhappiness with the deal, telling "all the progressives out there" at a campaign fundraiser that "I want you to understand that we can't just ignore this debt and deficit, we've got to do something about it."
On Aug. 15 he'll start a three-day bus tour through the Midwest, touting his plans to spur job creation — and effectively starting his 2012 re-election campaign.
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