How Obama Can Win Back Independents

In Washington, you are whom you lunch with. So it was worth noting that on the same day that a conservative Republican was pulling a historic upset victory in the Massachusetts Senate race, Obama was dining at the White House with retiring GOP Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio. The luncheon guest is known for his concern about the federal balance sheet, which is a scary thing to read these days. Voinovich is no Randian wingnut, but, as a former governor and a practical guy, he hates the idea of debt. He frets, not without reason, that we now owe a greater percentage of our patrimony to others (including our descendants) than at any time since the end of World War II. In other words, he knows how to speak to the soul of "independents," this season's most sought-after voting bloc.

As Obama gears up for the second year of his presidency—to be launched more or less officially in his first State of the Union address—his interest in Voinovich is a sign that the president is worrying about how to make a pitch to those voters, whose lukewarm allegiance has turned cold. The numbers are clear enough. In the 2008 election, he won 52 percent of the vote of the 29 percent of the electorate that described itself as neither Democrat nor Republican, but rather "independent or something else." Now he has the support of only 42 percent of those independent voters. In three statewide races since 2008—the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey last November, and the Massachusetts Senate race—the Democratic candidates have been clobbered by at least a 2–1 margin among independents.

Who are these people? And how can Obama lure than back?

An academic cottage industry exists to debate the identity of independents (or even if they exist) and what they care about. The academic discussions are way too technical for me. What I can tell you is based on having covered lots of elections, and self-described independents such as Ross Perot. It's enough to know that "independents" are weakly attached to the apparatus or agendas of the parties, that they tend to be younger and more male than hard-core party types, and that they are, for want of a better term, "process-oriented."

They yearn for "good government"—government that is open, fair, efficient, free of special interests' domination, and nonpartisan or bipartisan in spirit. They find no glory in ideological combat; they see it as destructive. They search for leaders who exhibit a sense of good will. They tend to fret about deficits and debt, but not in a reflexively antigovernmental way. They are not against social programs, but want them administered with old-school thrift. They are not "centrists" in the sense that they exist in some mathematical middle ground between "left" and "right." Nor are they necessarily angry "populists," eternally resenting and distrusting anyone with any power. They are outsiders who wish Washington were a better place.

Obama did a pretty good job of appealing to these folks in 2008. In many ways, he was the kind of politician they would distrust: a metropolitan liberal Democrat. But he had a knack for sounding like the most sober, reasonable, and nonideological of men. In the campaign, he couched many of his social proposals in terms that penny-pinching independents might like: health-care reform, for example, wasn't about social uplift as much as cost control.

But tone and clever thinking couldn't tame the realities of his first year in office. As Obama saw it, he had no choice but to throw money at vast crises, from saving the banks to saving jobs in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Of necessity, government got bigger but not more efficient. What's worse, the results have been all but invisible on Main Street or at the mall.

The health-care crusade has cost him among independents. Not that they didn't want heath-care reform; they did. But the massive bill now stuck in Congress has seemed to grow less sensible and more confusing in its substance, even as the process of enacting it has become more arcane, secretive, viciously partisan, and corrupt.

In 2008, Obama had won a majority of independents by promising to reform the way government worked: to make it more "transparent" and clean, more logical and brainy, less influenced by big money and old ideological thinking. Even though it contains worthy items, the health-care bill of 2010 has come to represent just another example of why Washington can't seem to operate rationally.

So what does Obama need to say in the State of the Union to win back independents? It's clear, from talking to his aides, that he knows that the onslaught of government spending and proposals have cost him with independents. As one insider said recently, "It's time for a pause." Obama will try to address fears about rising deficits and debt by proposing a commission, a favorite idea of the process types. He will declare his intent to slow the rise of federal spending and will point, with justification, to savings his administration has achieved in some areas. The president also may be able to score points with independents by vowing to somehow dam up the flow of corporate spending in campaigns, a flow that could grow to a flood as a result of the Supreme Court's recent ruling in the matter. But, according to some Democrats outside the White House, Obama's problem is his frame of reference: the South Side of Chicago, the liberal wing of the party that holds sway there, and his roots in Democrat-dominated Hawaii and the Ivy League.

"All of us are products of our experience," says Sen. Evan Bayh, a moderate Democrat and deficit hawk. "By the standards of his background, he thinks of himself as a moderate, pragmatic guy, and I think he is correct. But that still leaves him to the left of the mainstream, which is not where he needs to be if he is going to win those independents back."

We'll see how he does Wednesday night.

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