In the past few weeks President Obama has made a relentless sales pitch for a “grand bargain” deal to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. He’s persuaded many leaders in his own party, including liberal stalwart Nancy Pelosi, who said yesterday “it is clear we must enter an era of austerity.”

If only President Obama and the rest of Washington’s political class had tried to solve the jobs crisis with such aggressive persistence. The fact is, aside from the stimulus bill, the Obama administration never seriously pushed for a comprehensive jobs bill, even though it’s been clear for quite some time that more action is needed from Washington to help solve the economic crisis. Republicans, meanwhile, always propose the same solution to any problem: massive tax cuts for rich people and giant corporations. No wonder the public is in a restive mood and getting more anxious as the economy continues to lag and both parties ignore the number-one issue facing the country.

According to a new Washington Post poll flagged by Greg Sargent, only 39 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling the economy (the number for Congressional Republicans is even lower, at 28 percent). Voters trust Obama more than the GOP to handle the budget deficit, yet remain incredibly pessimistic about the federal government and the economy as a whole. Only 20 percent of voters feel positive about how the federal government works, the lowest number since October 1992, and 90 percent of voters describe the state of the economy as “negative.” Eighty-two percent of voters say jobs are “difficult to find” where they live. A mere 29 percent of voters say the Obama administration has made their lives better, while 37 percent say worse and 33 percent report no effect.

It goes without saying that these are very bad numbers for the president. “Washington’s obsession with the deficit, at the expense of job creation, is doing nothing to help Obama’s standing on the all-important issue of the economy, where the president continues to slip,” Sargent writes.

The president and his advisors are convinced that massive spending cuts, as part of a larger deficit reduction deal, is the only way for Obama to win back elusive independent voters in 2012. “Obama’s political advisers have long believed that securing such an agreement would provide an enormous boost to his 2012 campaign, according to people familiar with White House thinking,” the Post reported Monday. “In particular, they want to preserve and improve the president’s standing among political independents, who abandoned Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections and who say reining in the nation’s debt is a high priority.”

At a time of rising economic insecurity, the White House is placing a very risky bet. I’d argue that independent voters—and the electorate as a whole—will ultimately judge the Obama administration based on how the economy is performing, not on the size of the deficit. If the jobs crisis doesn’t improve by November 2012, no one will remember the deal Obama struck to prevent an economic catastrophe.

—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.