Tax Cuts: Why Compromise Could Help Obama

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What's the difference between "caving" and "compromise"? It could mean the difference between President Obama becoming a one-term president and winning re-election in 2012.

For liberal Democrats, the d White House decision to extend tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans is, in the words of Michigan Rep. John Conyers, "a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party and the nation."

But for many voters, including Democrats, compromise is exactly what they've been asking Washington to do for the past few years. If there was any mandate that came from the 2010 election, it was this: Stop fighting and start working.

At a focus group conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania Monday night, 12 voters got a chance to weigh in on the fight in Washington. Their message to Washington: Stop trying to "score points" and focus instead on fixing the economy.

The group was composed of 10 voters from the Philadelphia suburbs and two from Delaware who'd voted for Republican Christine O'Donnell for Senate. Although the majority of voters identified themselves as independent or Republican, eight of the 12 had voted for Obama in 2008.

It's dangerous to read too much into the opinions of one small group of voters. But it does give some perspective on just how the fight in Washington resonates -- or not -- with voters outside the Beltway.

When asked by the moderator, veteran pollster Peter Hart, whether D.C. politicians should compromise or stick to their campaign promises, all but two picked compromise. Mary Jo Apakian, a consulting engineer from Folsom, Pa., who'd voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008, said her message to the GOP Congress was "please work with your counterparts."

Three other participants who'd voted for Obama in 2008 had similar messages for the new Congress. Robert Passantino, an independent, said, "Please work with your opposition across the aisle. Your primary purpose is to serve." Emanuel Perez, a 38-year old Republican, wanted the new Congress to "stay tough but reasonable."

These are the voters Obama needs to win if he wants a second term. One quick reminder to the House Democrats: These are the voters that you need to win, too, if you want any shot at regaining control of the House. Almost all the voters in this focus group live in the bellwether 7th and 8th Congressional Districts of Pennsylvania. Both districts flipped from Democratic to Republican control in 2006, and flipped back to Republicans this fall.

As for frustration on the left, there was no evidence that it was going to turn into action. About half the folks in the room said they supported tax cuts only for those who make $250,000 or less. Darryl Bennett, a 46-year old independent who'd voted for Obama, said, "I don't know anyone who makes $250,000 a year."

Still, when asked if they'd be disappointed if Obama compromised by raising the cutoff to $500,000 or $1 million, four, including Darryl, said they'd be disappointed. All had voted for Obama.

No Obama Voters Threw Up Hands and Said, 'I'm Done With Him'

Suzen Wysor, a 28-year old social worker from Morrisville, Pa., said she thought it "very greedy" to extend tax cuts for the wealthy, and said she'd write a letter to voice her frustration.

However, none of the Obama voters threw up his or her hands and said, "I'm done with him." No one talked about supporting another Democrat in 2012. And, overall, this group of voters gave the president high marks on most of his agenda -- five saw the stimulus as a positive accomplishment, while almost everyone in the room approved of Wall Street reform, credit card reform, and even the auto bailout.

This isn't to say the president doesn't have problems. When asked what Obama needed to do to win their votes in 2012, half mentioned the economy and/or jobs.

If the economy doesn't get better, nothing that the president or Congress does between now and next November will matter all that much. Moreover, even Democrats lamented his inability to personally connect with ordinary people. Being able to "feel their pain" is something the Obama supporters want this president to do, but they don't know if he can.