WASHINGTON (AP) — In political terms, President Barack Obama's tax-cut compromise with Republicans amounted to a step toward luring back independent voters whose support he needs to win re-election in 2012.
Never mind that the deal alienated his liberal base; there's no clear alternative Democrat to run against him.
Perhaps more likely is a bid by an independent — maybe New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — looking to fill a vacuum created by voter frustration with both political parties and disappointment with a president who has broken his promise to change how Washington works.
Enter Obama's dealmaking with Republicans and criticism of Democrats, moves seemingly intended to try to reclaim that territory as he casts himself as a pragmatic president putting people above politics.
"We will never get anything done" if Democrats are unwilling to bend and liberals insist on ideal positions, Obama said Tuesday, staunchly defending the deal and passionately countering fellow Democrats' complaints that he compromises too much on their core issues.
"People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people," Obama said. "And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are." In the meantime, he said, Americans will suffer.
"That can't be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat," he added.
And with that, Obama started positioning himself as the president first, and the country's top Democrat second.
The move could play well with disillusioned independent voters, who were critical to his victory in 2008 and will be again in his 2012 re-election race.
There's no doubt that tax cuts will be a central campaign issue, though, for now, would-be Republican opponents have been virtually silent on them.
Under the deal Congress still must approve, Bush-era tax cuts expiring at year's end would be continued for all Americans for two more years. That would ensure a battle over renewing them just as the campaign is in full swing.
Obama promised as much, saying, "I will fight."
He wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans; Republicans insist on keeping the cuts in place for everyone permanently. In the end, Obama agreed to a temporary extension of the tax cuts for all while the GOP agreed to back an extension of unemployment benefits that also are set to end soon.
The president previewed the debate ahead in 2012 by likening Republicans to "hostage-takers" willing to hurt the great majority of Americans to extend tax cuts for millionaires.
"On the Republican side, this is their Holy Grail," Obama said, adding: "It seems to be their central economic doctrine."
Conversely, he cast Democrats as the party of middle class protectors, foreshadowing a campaign of populist pitches and class warfare.
The compromise signals more likely to come as Obama courts the fickle center of the electorate.
He's essentially betting that Democrats ultimately will fall in line behind him — and hoping that no serious Democratic challenger emerges, much less a serious third-party candidate.
Liberals disappointed with Obama have been clamoring for someone of their ilk — like Howard Dean or Russ Feingold — to step up. But no one has given any indication of a willingness to run against the president, particularly one who still is personally popular with key Democratic constituencies.
Still, in a sign of potential vulnerabilities, a new poll by the Pew Research Center finds Democrats and people who lean to the Democratic side giving Obama mixed ratings on traditional party positions. Forty-three percent say he is doing a fair or poor job on such issues as protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and representing working people.
Obama's troubles are most acute among independents, and that — if ignored — could give an opening to someone who rejects both parties.
Bloomberg's aides insist he's not running. But he sounded every bit the candidate Wednesday when he criticized lawmakers from both parties for having "abdicated their responsibility." He's also taking steps to raise his national profile; he is to appear on "Meet the Press" on Sunday and attend the launch of a new group called No Labels that's courting disillusioned members of both parties.
Obama hopes he can win back independents and thwart a third-party challenge.
Independents rallied behind him strongly during his presidential campaign, embracing his calls for a solutions-oriented Washington free from partisan gridlock and bickering. But, within two years, independents had fled the Democratic Party and Obama, disappointed with politics as usual in Washington at a time of high unemployment, budget-busting spending and soaring national debt.
Obama also infuriated fellow Democrats who felt he didn't hold true to their core principles. They balked, for example, when the health care law didn't include a government-run insurance option.
Now, he's angered labor by calling for a freeze on federal wages. He also has insisted that the Senate take up a nuclear arms treaty ahead of other Democratic priorities, including immigration reform and allowing gays to openly serve in the military.
No doubt earning props from independents, Obama struck back Tuesday at liberal critics.
"Take a tally," Obama said. "Look at what I promised during the campaign. There's not a single thing that I've said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven't gotten it done yet, I'm still trying to do it."
He continued: "To my Democratic friends, what I'd suggest is let's make sure that we understand this is a long game. This is not a short game. And to my Republican friends, I would suggest, I think this is a good agreement. Because I know that they're swallowing some things that they don't like as well."
He offered no words to independents.
Instead, he let his compromise do the talking.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.
An AP News Analysis