Obama Tries to Recapture Independents
NASHUA, N.H. - A day after unveiling next year's budget, President Obama got applause when he detailed a $30 billion small-business loan program at a town-hall-style forum the White House organized Tuesday in a high school gym.
To get an earful, he could have tuned into New Hampshire Today, the afternoon show on WTPL-FM, during which host Jack Heath fielded calls expressing alarm over bigger numbers in the budget: the $3.8 trillion total for 2011 and the record-setting $1.6 trillion deficit in this year. "Is he going to make people like me feel we're being represented, we're being heard?" a caller who identified himself as Rocky from Washington, N.H., said of Obama on Monday's show. Tracy from Goffstown warned, "People are angry."
Independent voters in particular are uneasy about a tide of red ink in the wake of the billion-dollar packages for Wall Street, automakers and stimulus spending. That has contributed to a precipitous decline in Obama's standing among the voters not firmly aligned with either party who often determine elections.
To reassure them, the president paid allegiance to New Hampshire's "spirit of independence and self-reliance," defended the bailouts he said were necessary to avoid a depression and castigated Republicans for playing the "Washington game." He promised to freeze some domestic spending and appoint a bipartisan commission to figure out how to balance the budget - though he acknowledged that couldn't be done without curbing exploding Medicare and Medicaid costs.
"It keeps me awake at night, thinking about all that red ink," Obama said.
Unsettled and unnerved
The overwhelmingly Democratic crowd in the Nashua High School North gym was more energized by the president's promise to keep working on the stalled health care legislation. "We're essentially on the 5-yard line," he said to a standing ovation. "We've got to punch it through."
In interviews along Concord's Main Street, voters were more likely to raise concerns about taxes, spending and big government.
When the budget is squeezed in her household, "we cut spending," says Deb Shea, 37, co-owner of the Barley House Restaurant. "When it happens in our business, we cut spending. If the action by the government is 'Let's spend more money and raise the deficit' - that's just unsettling and a little unnerving."
Her husband, Brian, 47, the restaurant's co-owner and chef, would rather see taxes cut than a new program funded. Even better, he says, would be a brighter economy that would encourage people to enjoy a night out.
When Obama was inaugurated, independents approved of him by more than 2-1, 60 percent-26 percent, in the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. In the latest survey, taken Jan. 8-10, independents disapproved of the job he was doing by a double-digit margin: 42 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove.
In New Hampshire - where there are more independents than Republicans or Democrats - his 59 percent support in the 2008 election plummeted to 37 percent approval in a statewide American Research Group survey taken at the end of last year.
"In New Hampshire, the undeclared voter is generally socially moderate but fiscally conservative," says Dick Bennett of the Manchester-based polling firm. "They're concerned with what they see. They don't see the benefits of the stimulus and the spending, and they ask, 'Why are my property values suppressed? Why are the big banks getting all the money?' "
Nationwide, independent voters in the USA TODAY Poll were more likely than Republicans or Democrats to rate the federal budget deficit as the most important problem facing the nation.
At risk in the Granite State in November for Democrats is a tossup Senate race to succeed retiring Republican Judd Gregg and two competitive House elections. The race in the 2nd District, where Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes is running for the Senate, is one of the "dangerous dozen" open seats rated by non-partisan analyst Stuart Rothenberg as most likely to change control.
Differing views of what's needed
Nationwide, Democrats are braced for losses in November, as is typical for the party that controls the White House in midterm elections.
Some here argue that Obama is doing what's needed.
"Honey, if you look at my budget, there's a major deficit," says Deanna O'Shaughnessy, 58, CEO of a start-up bottled-water company called Nh2O (as in New Hampshire water).
"If you want to grow a business, you've got to invest the dollars," she says, "and the government is like a business. We need to put the dollars in to get our butts off the ground."
But at the American Barber Studios, where hair has been clipped since 1846, barber Andrew McCoo, 22, says he hears all day from customers complaining about Obama: " 'He's spending this money; he's spending that money.' "
"My children are going to be the ones who pay," frets barber Doug Stone, 44. "My children and my children's children."