Deputy editorial page editor, columnist

The word clouds tell the story — and illustrate the challenges ahead for both sides.

“TRYING,” says the cloud illustrating swing voters’ assessment of President Obama. And then, ominously: “liberal” and “ineffective.”

“STUBBORN,” says the cloud illustrating these voters’ view of congressional Republicans. Followed by “conservative,” “selfish,” “greedy” and — the one unabashedly positive phrase among the top 10 — “trying.”

The images are generated from a fascinating new poll by the centrist Democratic group Third Way. The clouds depict the assessment of what the poll terms “persuadable switchers” — voters in a dozen battleground states who backed Obama in 2008, voted for Republicans in 2010 and describe themselves as up for grabs in 2012.

The Third Way poll, conducted by Stefan Hankin of Lincoln Park Strategies, examined two groups: the “switchers” and the “droppers,” who voted for Obama in 2008 and stayed home in 2010. The “droppers,” it found, are not the president’s problem. Nearly three-fourths say they will definitely or probably vote to reelect Obama.

Word cloud illustrating swing voters’ assessment of President Obama. (Graphic courtesy of Third Way)

The switchers represent a bigger headache. Less than a third said they would definitely or probably vote again for the president. A full quarter said they are irretrievably gone.

In all, six in 10 switchers are persuadable, prompting the question: What would it take to do the trick?

It won’t be easy. As the word cloud depicts, these voters continue to like Obama. They think he’s smart and sincere. They give him credit for trying. But the next two words encapsulate their twin doubts: that he is too liberal for their tastes and not effective enough for the country’s needs.

The first word may be easier to knock down than the second. These persuadable switchers describe themselves as significantly more conservative than Obama and his party. Strangely, they see Obama as slightly more liberal than his congressional counterparts. Even stranger, given that they voted for Obama, they see themselves as closer on the ideological spectrum to congressional Republicans than to the president.

The key for Obama may be to convince these voters that he is serious about deficit reduction. They care about the issue — more, as they perceive it, than do the president or congressional Republicans. Yet their preferred approach dovetails nicely with Obama’s. More than two-thirds would be willing to accept tax increases as part of a deficit-reduction plan.

The harder task for Obama will be to dispel the aura of ineffectiveness. This presents a twofold challenge: first, to show he can get something done in the face of a Republican-controlled House that isn’t inclined to hand him any such victory; and second, to demonstrate his effectiveness in the relatively short time remaining. If the ultimate measure is the economy — and more than half the persuadable switchers put it at the top of their list — that will be extraordinarily difficult. Even if Congress were to magically pass Obama’s plan swiftly and in full, the jobs turnaround is apt to be slow and far from assured.

Of course, Republicans aren’t about to be so compliant, but their word cloud helps explain the GOP’s new tone of seeming conciliation. When swing voters who backed you in 2010 come up with words such as “selfish,” “greedy” and “irresponsible” less than a year later, you’ve got a serious problem with the brand.

Word cloud illustrating swing voters’ views of congressional Republicans. (Graphic courtesy of Third Way)

The political trick for Republicans is to puff up Obama’s “ineffective liberal” portrait while diminishing their image as the intransigent party. Their smartest move would be to quickly co-opt a piece of Obama’s jobs plan — tax cuts and a slice of trade deals, anyone? This jujitsu would dissipate the stubbornness rap without letting the president crow that Republicans acceded to his demand to “pass this bill.” Let Obama look like Mr. All-or-Nothing.

Yet much as he might prefer to, Obama won’t be running against congressional Republicans. This is why Mitt Romney’s approach to Obama — casting him as a nice guy in over his head — could be so potent. Where Texas Gov. Rick Perry can be cutting about Obama, Romney takes more of the “poor schnook” stance. He’s not telling swing voters they were wrong to give Obama a shot — just that the president tried and failed.

“If you think the country needs a turnaround, that’s what I do,” Romney said at the Tea Party debate.

Romney still has some explaining to do about why his private-sector turnarounds so often involved cutting jobs, not creating them. But he is emerging as a formidable candidate against an incumbent for whom trying, however hard, may not be enough.