The New York Times says President Obama’s re-election team is debating the best way to win the all important independent vote. I hope they’ll bear in mind that “independent” doesn’t mean “generic” and “bipartisan” doesn’t mean “bland.”
I believe the president has been right to pursue bipartisan solutions, and that no one should be surprised that he has. This is the man who vaulted to national prominence with his call for, not a red America or a blue America, but a United States of America.
But that doesn’t mean he was elected by people who need everything served not-too-hot, not-too-cold, but just-right. Just as the “average person” does not exist — being only a composite of millions of quirky individuals — neither does the idealised, centrist independent voter. Independents are independent for all sorts of reasons, including, we should not forget, that many just don’t think much about their politics.
There is no “independent policy” that will win the independent vote. When it comes to governing, the president can continue to focus on making choices he believes will yield the most progress for the country. But talking too much about how carefully moderate it all is could, ironically, lose the independent vote.
That’s because independents, like all voters, don’t vote for policies. They vote for a leader. And leaders don’t talk in terms of policies, they tell stories about destiny.
The choice of a leader is an emotional one, based on character and stories. There’s a lot of research on this, but if you doubt it, look at what Republicans have done to the nation’s economy, and consider how many people believe that it’s President Obama’s fault.
Obama’s breakthrough “United States of America” speech wasn’t a policy briefing, it was a powerful story of patriotic unity, delivered by someone who projected great strength of character. Obama continued that way in his presidential campaign, which was a call to the quest for “a more perfect union.”
Meanwhile Republicans were descending into a hyper-partisan disregard for that union. They have done it great damage. But they have at least handed the Obama re-election campaign a great gift: the gift of a righteous battle.
President Obama can fight this battle with passion, and he can do it by being true to his principles. He won’t need to get anywhere near the vicious partisanship he clearly detests — in fact, just the opposite.
Obama is in the enviable position of fighting as the champion of his nation’s highest values, the values that both unite us and protect our freedom. He can win by being bipartisan and bold. The path Obama followed to the presidency is also the path to his re-election.