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TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Obama Has Boehner Right Where He Wants Him

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.

Only brain-dead populists believe that the people are always right. Still, in a representative democracy, elected officials who want to remain in office and get something done should listen carefully to what the people are saying. All the more so for a president challenged to reorient his administration after a devastating rebuke.

Two recent surveys should help President Obama chart a new path for the next two years.

A just-released Pew survey finds that 55 percent of respondents want Republican leaders in Washington to "try as best they can to work with Barack Obama to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some groups of Republican supporters." Only 38 percent disagreed. Conversely, 62 percent want Obama to work hard to cooperate with Republicans, even if it means disappointing some of his supporters.

A recent bipartisan survey--a collaboration between Democracy Corps and Resurgent Republic--mirrors this finding and offers additional insights. By a margin of 67 to 26, the people want president Obama to work harder to find common ground with Republicans rather than simply holding fast to his own agenda. By a margin of 60 to 36, they endorsed the proposition that "Congressional Republicans should be more willing to work with President Obama to find solutions" over the contrary proposition that "Congressional Republicans should do even more to stop President Obama's agenda because his proposals would irrevocably harm America."

On closer examination, two points stand out. First, substantial majorities of both independents and swing voters endorse both propositions. Second, while 73 percent of Democrats think that congressional Democrats should be more willing to work with congressional Republicans, only 30 percent of Republicans think that congressional Republicans should be more willing to work with Obama, while 65 percent of Republicans think that they should do even more to stop the president's agenda. The bottom line: While Democrats and independents want conciliation and compromise, Republicans don't.

So Obama faces a win-win situation. If he extends his hand to the opposition and they spurn it, the independents and swing voters whose views will determine the 2012 election will give him credit for doing what they want while coming down hard on Republican obstructionists. If the Republicans grasp his outstretched hand, then the country might actually make some progress. And by a margin of 49 to 30, the people think that the president--not congressional Republicans--should take the lead.

To be sure, many of the president's supporters will be disappointed--at least at first. While 44 percent of Democrats believe that "in order to win in the future, the Democratic Party must move more to the center . . . to win over independent voters," 50 percent disagree, arguing that their party needs to be more supportive of its core principles. But 57 percent of swing voters and 62 percent of independents, who moved sharply toward Republicans between 2008 and 2010, endorse the former course over the latter. If President Obama makes the right strategic choice, he can help himself and the country. And despite its misgivings, it's hard to believe that his party wouldn't benefit as well.