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OPINION: Obama can win independents back

Jacqueline Salit is the president of IndependentVoting.org, a national association of independent voters. She coordinated the Independence Party's campaign for Mike Bloomberg.

 

Just 10 minutes into his 70-minute State of the Union address Wednesday, President Barack Obama told the nation's lawmakers that Americans are tired of the partisanship and the pettiness. Later, he told the Democrats and Republicans assembled that the people need a government that matches their decency.

Independents listened eagerly to his words, to see if the president would seek outside-the-box remedies for his first-year failures, caused by an entrenched partisan structure. Instead, the community organizer who had mobilized millions - including millions of independents - to vote for radical change, reverted to the moderate constitutional lawyer arguing that Democratic and Republican elected officials should come together.

But they haven't. And 40 percent of Americans today are sufficiently fed up with that paradigm to call themselves independents. In Nassau and Suffolk counties there are 516,144 such independents. A bit farther west, the Independence Party of New York City pulled a record 150,000 votes on its line for independent Mike Bloomberg in November. Statewide, more than 20 percent of the electorate are independents.

But Obama, tethered to a Democratic majority and reactive to a Republican minority, could not find a way to break out.

Americans are angry that government is so partisan, whether in Albany or Washington. But when the object of your anger - the political establishment that is densely woven around the two parties - is also the only available solution, you have a serious problem. That's the bind most Americans find themselves in. They are looking for a way out of a maze that only leads back to itself.

The independence movement has been gathering steam for nearly 20 years. In its short life, it has acquired a history, identifiable leaders, and a set of controversies that define it. Here's a four-point crash course for the Obama team.

1.Don't buy into the myth that independents are all white, center-right males. When the Perot movement exploded on to the political scene in 1992, its profile was the angry, white, right-leaning male. But the progressive wing of the movement - which built a small but active base in the black, Latino, gay and liberal communities - coalesced with the Perot movement to define a new, inclusive direction. Some in the movement opposed that idea, and the battle has taken many twists and turns - including unsuccessful efforts here in New York State to expel black and progressive leaders from the Independence Party. The Obama team benefited from an alliance of black and independent voters in 2008 and must connect to the independents who shaped it.

2. It's the process, stupid. The independent movement resolved to bridge the partisan and ideological divide and come together as a cohesive force. Turning against the notion that independents were best represented by a third party, a "process agenda" came to take the place of traditional issues. Independents in the process wing of the movement believe that the political decision-making structure must be reformed. Open primaries, putting independents on the Federal Election Commission, nonpartisan governance and reducing the privilege of the parties over the people are the first priorities. The Obama team must engage with that agenda.

3.The independent movement is vulnerable to swinging to the right. In 2008, Obama won the primaries and the general election with the support of independents. The progressive/process wing of the movement made that happen from the bottom up. But the endorsement isn't permanent. The right wing lost control of the national independent movement beginning in 2000, but now it wants it back. The Obama team needs to study that history. It has a stake in supporting the movement's progressive wing.

4. Independents elected Obama to be independent. Since winning the presidency, however, Obama handed his independent campaign organization to the Democratic National Committee and gave health care to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, re-entering the partisan grid. Obama needs to extricate himself and connect to the progressive/process networks in the independent movement. That means standing up to his own party and to the party system.

What's the state of the union? It's in distress, and its people, including the president, have been straitjacketed by a partisan government. Independents are looking for a way out.

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