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Analysis: Obama's tilt right could sting in 2012

U.S. President Obama ponders over a question during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington
U.S. President Obama ponders over a question during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington

By Kim Dixon and Eric Johnson

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's tilt to the right in debt talks is denting enthusiasm within the army of volunteers who propelled him to the White House, and could cut into their financial support.

The president, who raised a record $745 million in cash during 2008 is likely to keep his lead in the fund-raising race in 2012, though he may have to rely on fewer small donations than last time around.

Obama starts the 2012 race as the cash leader and is seen breaking his goal of raising $60 million in the second quarter alone, dwarfing all the Republican hopefuls combined.

At the same time, liberal groups are speaking out against the his policy positions.

Moveon.org, for example, has asked its five million members to call the White House to protest any cuts to the Social Security retirement program or Medicare for the elderly.

Giving by labor unions, a traditional pillar of Democratic support, was down in the first quarter.

"The AFL-CIO opposes any cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, and there is no question that our members are going to take the position of elected officials on this question very seriously going into 2012," said Damon Silvers, policy director for the big umbrella union.

Silvers said it is not just about fundraising.

"The real political clout of organized labor is not the money, it is the volunteers," he said. "We didn't have enough clipboards for them in 2008."

Obama on Monday repeated his willingness to look at changes to Social Security and Medicare as part of a deal to raise the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt ceiling.

He and congressional Republicans are at an impasse, with an August 2 deadline looming by which time the government's debt ceiling must be raised or the country will default on its obligations.

Justin Ruben, executive director of Moveon.org, said the debt ceiling is a "crucial moment," noting that Obama's 2008 election was propelled in part by a million people giving small donations and devoting hours to knock on doors.

"I think that is the recipe for re-election, but people need to be inspired," Ruben said.

Another liberal group, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, has gathered almost 180,000 individuals to pledge not to give time or money to Obama if he supports cuts to the big social programs.

RENEWING A WINNING STRATEGY

Obama is due to report second-quarter fundraising figures to federal election regulators by Friday. Obama supporter and fundraiser Alan Solow said the president's stance has not impacted his ability to raise money with the liberal base.

"I don't believe it will in the long run," said Solow, a partner at DLA Piper. "The fact that he is showing real leadership will enhance his ability to raise money in the long run."

Part of Obama's winning strategy in 2008 was to tap thousands of small donations, and his campaign to some extent is renewing that strategy.

Campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan said on the first day of fundraising, nearly 97 percent of donations came from people who gave less than $200.

"We had over 490,000 unique donors at the close of the second quarter-which is significant because if you look at the end of the second quarter in 2007, the Obama campaign had 180,000 donors," she said.

In 2008, a record four million individuals contributed to Obama's campaign, about a quarter of them small donors who gave $200 or less, according to the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington.

Still, 42 percent -- the biggest portion of individual givers to Obama's general election campaign -- were from those who gave $1,000 or more, according to the CFI.

Many view Obama's shift to the right as a bid to court independents, who are more likely to back his efforts to cut spending and who helped him break fund-raising records in 2008.

One question is whether Obama's gain among independents is worth losing some support from labor, and another important constituency, the elderly.

"All told, he'd rather get the votes of independents than seniors," said Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University professor. "But you need the elderly in key states like Florida so at the end of the day you wouldn't want to lose either one."

It may not be possible to rekindle the same enthusiasm for Obama, the president who has to make tough choices, as it was for Obama, the insurgent candidate, said Neera Tanden, who was domestic policy adviser on Obama's 2008 campaign.

Tanden also said the White House should not assume independents' thinking on social programs. "This idea that the independents are going to reward cuts to entitlements is a big risk," Tanden said.

She said when push comes to shove, people say they want deficit reduction but will be angry if their benefits are trimmed.

In the end, Obama is banking on voters seeing no other option, compared with the Republican alternatives.

"That is something President Obama has repeatedly been willing to accept. Liberals are angry with him, but they have nowhere else to go," said Julian Zelizer, presidential historian at Princeton University.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Christopher Wilson)

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