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Obama gets mixed grades from focus group

As President Obama struck a tax-cut deal with congressional Republicans last week and fought to save it from the outrage of liberals, a focus group of Philadelphia-area voters delivered a mixed verdict on his presidency at midpoint:

As President Obama struck a tax-cut deal with congressional Republicans last week and fought to save it from the outrage of liberals, a focus group of Philadelphia-area voters delivered a mixed verdict on his presidency at midpoint:

They lack a strong emotional connection to Obama, finding him aloof and unclear about where he wants to lead the nation. They wonder what core principles he won't compromise on. Yet they like the president, give him some credit for preventing an economic depression, and want him to succeed.

And they just want the Republicans who are about to take over the House and increase their numbers in the Senate to work with the president to fix the economy.

"Your reelection is not a priority," lawyer Stephen Atkins, 62, a Republican from Fort Washington, said when the 12 participants were asked for a slogan that incoming members of Congress should wear on a bracelet.

All in all, the focus-group discussion, led by top Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart for the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, revealed voters uncertain about the future and wanting pragmatic leadership from both the president and Congress, as they head into a period of divided government beginning in January.

This panel, part of an ongoing Annenberg series, was a cross-section of Pennsylvania voters from the suburban Seventh and Eighth Congressional Districts - two swing districts that the GOP carried this year - as well as two voters from Delaware.

Three participants were Democrats, four were Republicans, and five were independents. In 2008, eight of the participants voted for Obama and four for GOP nominee John McCain.

All said they were sick of partisan score-settling.

"The Washington message is much different than the message here," Hart said after the two-hour discussion. "In Washington, there's a winner and a loser. The message from this group is, 'You guys all better get to work.' "

Seven of the 12 agreed with the long-standing Democratic position on the Bush-era tax cuts - that the lower rates should be extended only for those making less than $250,000 a year - but they were not off-the-charts angry with Obama's compromise to continue the breaks for two years for the wealthiest along with the middle class.

"It's very frustrating to me," said Suzen Wysor, 28, of Morrisville, a social worker and a Democrat. "I feel like the tax cuts for the very wealthy are very much based in being greedy and wanting . . . more and more. I voted for Obama because I wanted to see change. I voted Democrat [in 2010] because I wanted to continue . . . for people to fight for change."

But when asked what she would do, Wysor stopped short of abandoning her support for Obama. "Probably write a letter," she said.

Teresa Malley, 62, said that in general she preferred politicians who "compromise, but don't give away the store." Did Obama give away the store on the tax cuts? "I trust the president," said Malley, a retired sales manager and Democrat from Buckingham.

Independent voter Robert Passantino, who backed Obama two years ago, said the president had done the right thing for the economy by preserving the tax cuts for the middle class.

"It would be catastrophic if the tax cuts were to completely expire," said Passantino, 67, a salesman from Yardley.

While liberals have blasted Obama for "caving" to GOP congressional leaders, White House advisers say the compromise will help the president with independents - who largely abandoned Democrats in this year's midterms - because he acted to break the gridlock.

"He is starting to go in a better direction," said Mary Jo Apakian, 47, of Folsom, an engineer and independent who voted for McCain in 2008. She said she voted for Republicans for the House and Senate this year because "I felt we needed to have more balance."

"You need to compromise to get things done," Apakian said.

Overall, though, the Obama voters in the group wondered why his celebrated ability to communicate in the campaign had not translated as well to governing. A number labeled him a wishy-washy leader and worried he might become another Jimmy Carter, who got bogged down in the details of governance and did not convey a strong message in his one term as president.

Several said Obama was a "good family man," moral and intellectually brilliant, but not as good at relating to ordinary Americans.

"He doesn't seem to know how to reach out and engage the people," said Melanie Orpen, 38, a freelance film director and independent from New Britain. She voted for Obama and wants him to be more forceful, "compromise less and communicate more."

There was an almost universal nostalgia for former President Bill Clinton, who ruled during the prosperous 1990s, as if the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment had never happened.

"Clinton was one of the best presidents we ever had, extremely efficient," said Emanuel Perez, 38, a Republican engineer from Chesterbrook who voted for Obama.

There were encouraging signs for the White House as well.

When Hart asked the group to imagine Obama as a car and describe his condition at the midpoint of his term, the responses were: "some dents," "mud on the wheels," "needs detailing," time for a tune-up. But nobody said the car was totaled.

"I thought he would be much more battered," Hart said later.

Perhaps most surprisingly, half the group praised Obama for continuing the bailout of banks and for giving a federal bailout to the auto industry. The federal spending on financial institutions, GM, and Chrysler was a rallying point for conservatives and the independents who backed Republicans this year.

Obama, Passantino said, "has kept the economy afloat."