Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."
(CNN) -- Americans have voted for divided government roughly two-thirds of the time over the past half-century, and this year was no exception.
Here's the message I believe the American people were trying to send this election. It was articulated by a 54-year-old truck driver from Buffalo, New York, named John Ronan, who voted for Obama in 2008 but wanted to see Democrats "kicked in the pants" in 2010:
"I don't like having both houses [of Congress] and the presidency being in the same party," he told The Wall Street Journal. "By having Republicans in a position of authority, hopefully, they'll have to take some responsibility."
An assumption beneath the concept of voting for checks and balances is that the American people can effectively force the parties to work together on issues in the national interest. After all, divided government brought Americans such landmark legislation as the Marshall Plan, the Federal Highway Act and Reagan's tax cuts. After an initial period of intense partisan skirmishes, the divided government of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich even succeeded in achieving welfare reform and turning a deficit into a surplus.
But here's the catch: In today's poisonous hyper-partisan environment, will the two major parties be able to summon the will to work together in the national interest?
As President Obama prepares to meet with leaders from both parties at the end of this month (after a delay was announced by Republicans). they need to start defining the common ground that exists on urgent issues and offer the hope of something more than two years of angry partisan gridlock.
Here are three big-picture areas in which President Obama and party leaders might find a way to work together:
Entitlement reform: Exit polls found that 39 percent of Americans said reducing the deficit was the No. 1 priority for the next Congress. Candidate Obama talked about restoring fiscal responsibility consistently on the campaign trail and in a prominent pre-inauguration meeting with The Washington Post editorial board he endorsed entitlement reform.
Now is the time to take the lead on this issue, offering Obama the chance to pull the ultimate Nixon-in-China move in a courageous way that could bring down both the deficit and the debt. Any other solution, such as an agenda consisting of only cuts to discretionary spending, is just empty political rhetoric because it can't possibly solve the long-term deficits. Leading on entitlement reform would be an act of historic leadership that would help Obama re-center himself with the electorate.
Immigration reform: Obama should pull President Bush's immigration reform proposal out of mothballs, front-load the border security provisions, and then dare Republicans to support it or risk looking like shallow obstructionists. True, President Bush and Senate co-sponsors John McCain and Ted Kennedy were endlessly attacked from the right for this proposal (and the left wasn't looking to do the unpopular President Bush any favors at the time), but such a bipartisan coalition might offer a base of support in the center. President Obama can use this base to leverage action on this long-ignored and much-campaigned-on issue.
Energy independence: During the 2008 campaign, Obama and Sen. John McCain offered competing energy plans with much overlapping substance beneath the sloganeering -- remember "Drill, baby, drill"?
But with Obama's belated embrace of nuclear energy and even a pre-BP endorsement of expanded offshore drilling, there is still an opportunity to begin to wean America from its addiction to foreign oil. Obama should essentially update and endorse McCain's energy plan from the 2008 campaign and present it together with his one-time rival, now liberated from re-election challenges from the right.
This is a priority for independent voters. Presenting the legislative proposal with McCain would send the strong symbolic message that Obama understood the results of the 2010 election as a mandate to lead the search for common ground.
Ronan, the Buffalo truck driver, explained the consistency beneath the surface contradiction of independent voters giving Democrats an 18-point edge in 2006 and then swinging to the GOP by 18 points in 2010 -- it is a search for checks and balances and a rejection of the ideological arrogance and legislative overreach that can come with one-party rule. It is also a demand that the opposition party start to act with some sense of responsibility when it comes to governing.
Of course, some Republicans will interpret their victory in 2010 as an endorsement of a "No-bama" agenda, and they will oppose whatever the president puts forward in an attempt to continue to demonize the Democrats, looking for greater election gains in 2012.
Other conservatives will counsel that the midterm elections represent an ideological mandate for Republicans on fiscal and social issues alike -- they will be making the mirror image of the same mistake Democrats made after the 2008 election.
For evidence, look no further than the CNN poll released Monday that found only 17 percent of Americans saw this election as support for the GOP, while 70 percent viewed it as more of a rejection of Democrats. This was a vote for checks and balances as opposed to an outright endorsement of the Republican Party or its leaders.
After two years dominated by a health care debate in which both parties said that they agreed on 80 percent of the underlying issues -- and which then quickly degenerated into a debate about socialism and death panels -- the time has come for the American people to demand a different approach from our leaders. Extreme partisanship is hurting our country, and crippling our ability to meet the challenges we face.
There are serious, substantive areas where President Obama can find common ground with the reasonable edge of the Republican Party, and begin driving the legislative agenda of our nation not left to right, but forward.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.