WASHINGTON Fresh off a White House-brokered budget deal, President Barack Obama's reelection team hopes his intervention can lure back the moderate and independent voters who will be crucial to winning in 2012.
The president's campaign strategists have latched onto voters' distaste for partisan bickering, selling his role in the negotiations as evidence of a leadership style that can fix a broken political system and bring the parties together.
"Compromise ... cannot be a dirty word," top Obama adviser David Plouffe told NBC News' "Meet the Press," saying he hoped this would be a model for future dealings with the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.
But critics are not convinced. They say Obama's accommodation of Republicans was forced upon the White House by Democratic losses in 2010, and those very losses underscore a lack of leadership from within the White House that will matter more to voters in 2012.
Voters dumped many Democratic lawmakers in the 2010 midterm elections and sent a message that government was trying to do too much and Obama was too liberal, according to research by Third Way, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
"Obama, by trying to be the grand conciliator ... shows he is heeding that call," said Third Way's Ryan McConaghy. "Elections are decided in the middle. ... There is a real battle to be won and that is the battle of reasonableness."
A Gallup poll before Friday's budget deal found that 58 percent of Americans favored a compromise that averted a shutdown of the government, even if this meant giving ground on issues in the budget they personally felt strongly about.
Voters will get plenty more give and take in the months ahead, as Obama navigates a divided Congress grappling with next year's budget and raising the country's debt ceiling, which Republicans say they won't do without agreement on even more spending cuts.
The government could hit the current $14.3 trillion limit on its borrowing authority by mid-May and will need Congress to approve another increase or risk defaulting and sparking a debt crisis.
CRITICS SEE WEAK LEADER
The White House says Obama will continue to seek common ground with Republicans on those issues. And he will lay out a plan to tackle the deficit over the long term in a speech in Washington on Wednesday.
While the White House portrays Obama as a unifier operating above party politics, critics see the president trying to make a virtue of necessity. The real issue, they argue, is about leadership that is not coming from the Oval Office.
Michael Barone, resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the White House was trying to make the best of a bad situation by selling Obama's intervention in last week's budget showdown as a president mediating between ideologues.
"Voters may feel comfortable with that ... but I don't see this as the main problem," said Barone. "The strong leadership thing at this point is the problem for him," he said, arguing that Obama had sat back while Congress thrashed out the deal.
Obama formally declared himself a candidate for reelection on April 4. While the Republican field lacks a clear front-runner, Obama will still face a challenge in recreating a coalition of moderate and independent voters and the highly energized grass-root activists who swept him into the White House in 2008.
This block frayed in the 2010 midterm elections, when Democrats lost control of the House and saw their weight reduced in the Senate.
Republicans have been energized by support from the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement as well as social conservatives, who pushed to exclude taxpayer support for abortion from this year's budget.
But Obama, taking a traditional Democratic stance, beat off efforts to control birth control funding to the Planned Parenthood family planning organization.
Plouffe maintained that line on Sunday. He also took a traditional Democratic line when he criticized a Republican proposal to tame the long-term U.S. deficit, saying it put an unfair burden on old and poor Americans while supporting tax breaks for the country's wealthy.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)