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Jacqueline Salit Headshot

How Obama Can Be a Non-Partisan President

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Power politics has a way of erasing the memory of how things happened in the first place. That's because when institutions come to power, they want the stories about themselves to reinforce their institutional strength. They never like to credit outsider, non-institutional forces, even if the outsiders role in a set of events was pivotal.

Both President Obama and the Republican-led Congress seem to be grappling with this very tension in the budget negotiations going on now. Republicans won control of the House in 2010 because independent voters put them there. Obama won the White House in 2008 because independents chose him. Yet the budget negotiations -- both in their form and in their content -- are thoroughly rooted in a Democrat/Republican reality.

The Republicans want spending cuts. The Democrats want to preserve the safety net. Obama believes that his job is to stitch together a solution that draws from both. Put another way, he's trying to be the non-partisan President. And no doubt, the President's advisors hope that independent voters -- who decided the last two elections -- (actually three, since independents in open primary and caucus states picked Obama over Hillary Clinton) will see him that way.

Maybe they will. Certainly independents -- now 38% of the country according to the latest Pew poll -- have made it plain enough that they don't like partisanship, they don't like ideological dogmatism and they don't like.... well, parties. Even if they vote for them.

Obama would do well, not just to remember that history, but to make it a more visible feature of how he governs. Independents catapulted him -- first to the Democratic nomination and then to the White House. When he says that the American people "feel a sense of urgency, both about the breakdown in our political process and also about the situation in our economy," he can also acknowledge that the American people are doing something about it, namely leaving the Democratic and Republican parties and becoming independents.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 23% of Americans self-identify as Republicans, down from 25% in 2008 and 30% in 2004. 35% identify as Democrats (the same as 2008) even though the 2008 elections were expected to swell the ranks of Democrats. Independents, now 38%, were 32% of the electorate in 2008.

For many independents, it's not enough for Obama to simply criticize Congressional leaders for their partisan intransigence. He has to show that he's willing to back certain structural changes in the political process that make such intransigence more difficult. This means taking a stand in support of open primaries where independents can vote, which are currently under fire from right wing Republicans. And, imagine the shock waves that would follow an Obama appointment (in consultation with leaders of the independent movement) of two independents to vacant seats on the Federal Election Commission.

Moves like these would show independents that the President understands the history of recent electoral unrest and that he is ready to stand up for changes in the process that promote inclusion over party control and partisanship. Over the long term, that's what independents are looking for.

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