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Obama's budget appeals to independents

By Ed Hornick, CNN
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How the budget affects you
  • President Obama released his $3.7 billion budget proposal on Monday
  • Both Democrats and Republicans are taking aim at the cuts for different reasons
  • Independents want answers on entitlement reform, an expert said.

Washington (CNN) -- Criticism of President Obama's $3.7 trillion 2012 budget from both the left and right is a sign that it will probably find favor with independents, an expert on the influential voting bloc said.

"Independent voters believe if the far right and the far left are both upset, it's usually a sign that someone's doing something right," said John Avlon, a CNN contributor and author of the book "Independent Nation: How Centrism Can Change American Politics."

It's a point with which Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, agreed.

"Depending on how it's [Obama's budget] managed, the larger the Democratic outcry over it, the more credible he will seen to the fiscally concerned independent voters that are key to his re-election in 2012," she said.

Independents overwhelmingly favor a government divided between political parties -- a factor seen in the 2010 midterm elections in which independents helped end Democrats' control of Congress. They also have a distaste for hyperpartisanship, which has settled in Washington for decades.

But independents gave Obama a thumbs up, Avlon said, when he was willing to work with Republicans in last year's lame-duck session of Congress to get key legislation passed.

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"I think the president's strategy is to look like the adult in the room -- it has been since the elections," said Avlon, a Daily Beast contributor. "Independent voters look forward to that. But it's not simply a matter of playing it safe. He needs to make it clear to independents that he's dealing with the deficit and the debt."

The solution? Both parties need to stop bickering over small-term spending cuts and focus on the nation's long-term financial health by focusing on reform of entitlement programs, he said.

Those programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, make up a large chunk of the federal budget.

In Obama's budget, entitlement spending would remain mostly untouched, even though his own deficit reduction commission recommended changes.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Obama addressed the need for entitlement reform. When asked by reporters about the need to provide leadership on reform, Obama said that "it doesn't matter who goes first" in terms of making significant proposals.

Read more on the president's news conference

Republicans have repeatedly slammed Obama for a lack of specifics, but they too have failed to give details on what they would cut to reduce the deficit.

The president said he was confident about getting Social Security reform done with "modest adjustments" and without "slashing benefits." Medicare and Medicaid reform will be a bigger problem, largely because medical costs are rising as the population ages, he said.

"Nobody's more mindful than me" that entitlements have to be reformed, Obama said.

Avlon said Obama's budget takes small steps in that direction, but independents are going to be looking for more decisive action from Republicans and the president.

Read highlights of Obama's plan

The problem is that reforming Social Security and Medicare -- key issues among elderly voters who reliably head to the polls -- can be political suicide.

"Everybody gets that it's politically dangerous. But independents will reward that as an act of courage if it's done with an eye towards generational responsibility," Avlon said. "And that's where I think it's important that he be the honest broker in the deal and to sort of say 'You know what? This offers more cuts than a typical budget.' "

Avlon added that focusing solely on short-term spending cuts is counterproductive since they don't deal with the long-term issues facing generations to come.

"If they had the political courage to try and stand up and not have either party try to fear-monger on it, which is typical election tactics from both parties, then they'd find they can do some good and tackle the problem and win the support of independents."

The public, meanwhile, seems to be divided on how to accomplish the goals of cutting spending, reducing the deficit and reforming entitlement programs.

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll in mid-January, more than seven in 10 Americans said they back an agenda to reduce the size of government. A majority believe it's very important for Obama and Congress to tackle the deficit.

Nearly 80% of Americans, though, would rather prevent significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security than reduce the deficit. Overwhelming majorities also shy away from cuts in education, veterans' benefits, infrastructure spending or aid to the unemployed.

Read more on Obama's direction

And that could be a problem for Obama's outreach to his base come 2012.

Some parts of a popular education grant program are on the chopping block in Obama's budget, which could eliminate Pell grants for summer school, and making interest on federal loans for graduate students build up during school.

Also under the new budget, low-income heating assistance would face the budget knife. There would be new limits on deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable contributions. There would be a 10% reduction in community development block grants.

Republicans have repeatedly insisted that Obama's cuts don't go deep enough and only add to the debt; Obama's budget would add $7.2 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years.

But there may be some backlash toward Republicans who insist there be additional cuts.

There may be a large number of voters "who did not realize how much they needed federal spending until it was taken away from their communities," Schiller said.

"Not only will that help Obama in 2012, it may do damage to the longer-term Republican goal of shrinking the size and scope of the federal government."

CNN's Alan Silverleib and CNNMoney's Charles Riley contributed to this report.