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November 07, 2012 11:03 AM What Is This “Mandate” Thing Of Which You Speak?

By Ed Kilgore

During the many moments of time-filling on the television networks last night after the presidential outcome was clear, the most popular topic was the lack of a “mandate” flowing from Obama’s re-election win. To some gabbers, that meant Obama had not campaigned on a sufficiently clear positive agenda for dealing with debt and gridlock (code in Beltway-talk for embracing the Bowles-Simpson Commission recommendations), and to others, it just meant that for all the talk and turbulence and “wrong track” sentiment, the American electorate were pretty much confirming the status quo ante.

Ron Fournier of the National Journal nicely encapsulated both these complaints in his initial “meaning of the election” column:

Barack Obama won a second term but no mandate. Thanks in part to his own small-bore and brutish campaign, victory guarantees the president nothing more than the headache of building consensus in a gridlocked capital on behalf of a polarized public.
If the president begins his second term under any delusion that voters rubber-stamped his agenda on Tuesday night, he is doomed to fail.

Sounds like somebody was a little cranky last night or this morning, eh?

The only “mandate” I heard the president talk about last night, and it wasn’t particularly explicit, is that the election confirmed we are a nation where we owe certain important things to each other and to the common weal, by which I assume he means the electorate, and eventually (in rhetoric at least) even his Republican opponent, rejected a clear opportunity to begin implementing a radically conservative agenda based on economic individualism and cultural reaction.

But the “mandate” talk is in general a myth, and sometimes a destructive myth. Voters pull the lever for candidates, not agendas, and this year, at least, they largely voted for parties, not candidates. I haven’t seen any national House popular vote numbers yet, but it’s likely the total percentage for Republican candidates was about what Obama’s was, which means a “swing” of maybe three or four percent. Add in the impact of redistricting and of incumbent spending advantages, and the idea that “the American people” deliberately voted for “divided government” fades into meaninglessness.

Besides, we say just four years ago that even when a presidential candidate wins big and his party does as well, there’s no National Mandate Commission to determine what this enables the winner to do. Most Democrats thought Obama had a “mandate” to enact national health reform legislation and do something about climate change, among other things. Most Republicans apparently thought his only “mandate” was to compromise with (or surrender to) them. And although Obama was not on the ballot in 2010, and the shape of the electorate was dramatically different (as it always is in midterm as opposed to presidential elections), Republicans decided Obama had lost whatever “mandate” he originally possessed and really had to surrender posthaste.

Forget about “mandates” for a moment and just think about the practical consequences of Obama’s re-election, particularly since there will still be a Democratic Senate. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 will be implemented (with some obstruction from Republican-controlled states, to be sure, but implemented nonetheless), with its most important provisions kicking in prior to the 2014 midterm elections. Obama will also instantly possess superior leverage on the “fiscal cliff” issues that reflect the two parties’ most fundamental differences on taxes, spending, and the very role of government, for the simple reason that no “solution” can be reached without his and his party’s consent, with inaction producing an outcome much closer to Democratic policy preferences.

That means Republicans are the ones, far more than Obama, who will have to decide what happens next. Do they want to commit themselves to a midterm referendum on Obamacare that means actually reversing existing health insurance coverage for 40 or 50 million Americans? Is their opposition to high-end tax increases (reiterated by John Boehner just last night) so fanatical that they will reject any fiscal compromises no matter what happens, knowing that high-end taxes will in fact go up if they don’t bend?

I don’t know, and as regular readers know, I am immensely skeptical that last night’s results are going to produce any sort of reconsideration of hard-core conservative ideology by the GOP. But as a very practical matter, the GOP’s power to impose its will on Obama and on the statue books was significantly reduced last night, aside from the rather important consequence that we’re not going to see a GOP president and GOP Congress enact the Ryan Budget via a party-line vote using reconciliation rules, and a regulatory (and de-regulatory) assault on all things progressive. And even if you put all that aside (which you shouldn’t), the impact of Obama’s re-election on the future shape of the United States Supreme Court should be enough to shame all the pundits carping about the petty and inconsequential election of 2012.

Obama’s “mandate,” if you must use that term, is to exercise the powers given to him as president to pursue his values and his policy agenda to the maximum extent possible. As noted above, he’s in a better position to do so now. And he did seem, last night and during the latter stages of the campaign, to show some understanding that “change” in Washington does require mobilizing public opinion (viz. the overwhelming majorities favoring higher taxes on the very wealthy to reduce long-term deficits and avoid destruction of the social safety net and critical public investments) and explaining the big choices that the messy little battles in Congress reflect.

Having survived the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, a terrible midterm election, and the most savage vilification of an American president in living memory, that’s probably enough for Obama for one election night.

UPDATE: Jonathan Cohn of TNR has some similar thoughts this morning about the allegedly missing “mandate,” including this blunt assessment:

[W]hatever happens over the next four years, Obama’s reelection guarantees that the laws passed during his first term stay on the books. That instantly makes him one of the most accomplished presidents of modern times.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Daryl McCullough on November 07, 2012 11:15 AM:

    The only kind of mandate that counts is the one that comes with large majorities in the House and Senate.

  • stormskies on November 07, 2012 11:22 AM:

    The fact is that it is the changing demographics our country that is the underlying reason that Obama won again. And it the composite of all the 'minorities' that, by their nature, desire to focus on the 'common good' which is of course the essence of Obama's focus and agenda.

    That is also the core of the Democratic agenda/ focus.

    Four years from now those demographic changes will only be accelerating. And that means the probability of another Democrat for president is a pretty sure thing. And these changes will be reflected in the Senate and congressional elections as well.

    The Repiglicans of course are now force to acknowledge this actual facts versus their fictional realities. To me this will mean that the next four years will will produce, because of necessity from the Repiglicans point of view, a coalition that will allow a lot of necessary things get done in our country.

  • martin on November 07, 2012 11:23 AM:

    The Affordable Care Act of 2010 will be implemented (with some obstruction from Republican-controlled states, to be sure, but implemented nonetheless),

    Yup, Alabama overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment saying we don't have to participate in any health care program.

    Reason #2 we are sure winners on America's Stupidest Electorate.

  • Napoleon on November 07, 2012 11:25 AM:

    Fournier let the mask slip to reveal what anyone who pays attention to him realized long ago, there is nothing honest about his "reporting" at all. He is a hard line right wing hack with an agenda parading around as a journalist.

  • bdop4 on November 07, 2012 11:30 AM:

    Another huge consequence of the election is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now free to retire at any point during the next four years. I only pray that Obama appoints someone with the same perspective.

  • Homer on November 07, 2012 11:32 AM:

    It's definitely a Republican thing. This morning newly elected NC Governor McCory said the Nc Repubs had a mandate to implement their policies.

  • Just Guessing on November 07, 2012 11:36 AM:

    What hasn't been mentioned much yet is the fact that while Republicans believe that Obama is lefter than left, that commie socialist, etc, he has pretty much taken over the center/center right in politics by adopting many Republican ideas in his first 4 years like the healthcare law. This has had the profound effect of pushing the Republican Party further right, while they still believe that they are the party of the center and right.

    You can't plan where to go if you don't know your starting point and the Republican Party currently has no idea where they are. So good luck with that guys. Sorry, old white guys.

  • hornblower on November 07, 2012 11:38 AM:

    The greatest problem with the american media, print and video, is that the people in it represent the most declining demographic. They are overwhelmingly white and spend very little time speaking to anyone outside their social setting. It is no wonder they miss important trends and they sure get med when their predictions don't come true.

  • Zorro on November 07, 2012 11:44 AM:

    If Team Bush can interpret 2 stolen elections as being "mandates," then surely Team Obama can interpret 2 clear electoral wins as one.

    -Z

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on November 07, 2012 12:01 PM:

    Bullshit!!! says I.

    More of the GOP super-majority blather: So what you won??? But you did win really, really BIG! Ha. So your win doesn't count. We just might as well go ahead and swear Romney in since he didn't really LOSE lose.

    If Obama doesn't do diddly squit over the next four years, he should at least wage absolute war against the do-nothing GOP congress critters, so we can lay the ground works for 2014 and 2016 elections.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on November 07, 2012 12:03 PM:

    Edit: But you didn't win really, really BIG!

    ...pardons

  • scott_m on November 07, 2012 12:11 PM:

    After the 2004 election, George W. Bush (Remember him? He used to be president) said "Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it."

    All that claimed capital was based on 286 EVs and 50.7% of the popular vote.

    The latest numbers I see show for 2012 show Obama's EVs at 303 (with Florida likely to make that 332) and Obama's popular vote percentage at 51.1%.

    Just sayin'.

  • boatboy_srq on November 07, 2012 12:13 PM:

    small-bore and brutish campaign

    Projection much? This from a spokesdroid for the party of such quotes as "one-term president," "entitlement society", "birth certificate," "anti-colonialist" and other choice words concerning BHO.

    And "mandate", IIRC, was a construct of the GWB pResidency. The GOTea owns it, as much as they own the "fiscal cliff" and "federal default" issues of the last year. Looking for a "mandate" is a strictly GOTea preoccupation - based on the assumption that any officeholder of theirs has one, and none of any other party's ever could.

  • g on November 07, 2012 12:35 PM:

    This from a spokesdroid for the party of such quotes as "one-term president," "entitlement society", "birth certificate," "anti-colonialist" and other choice words concerning BHO

    Yes, and let's not forget the best example of how the Republican campaign took the high road - passing out DVDs that slandered their opponent's late mother. Klassy.

  • sjw on November 07, 2012 12:38 PM:

    "Mandate" is like "Momentum": a political myth.

  • Joe Friday on November 07, 2012 12:38 PM:

    In the exit polling (which is some of our most accurate polling), about 60% of voters want to raise taxes on those with incomes over $250,000.

    Looks like a mandate to me.

  • T2 on November 07, 2012 12:54 PM:

    a Mandate to a Republican is winning by one vote.

    Republicans require a Democrat to win all votes in the nation for a Mandate, and will argue that.

    What's clear about last night is that the Democrats, led by President Obama, won every Battleground state, and won in each of the four regions. Republican success was limited to the South. And in four years, Texas will go Dem as the Hispanic vote hits big time.
    Tea Party candidates failed miserably and proved that if the GOP continues to follow their lead, they'll go down the drain. Some of the Most Crazy Teabaggers got handed their ticket to Usedtobeville, and for mainstream GOPers, if they are smart they'll call a halt to anything TeaParty......it's a party of losers, and Losers.

  • bluestatedon on November 07, 2012 12:58 PM:

    "Fournier let the mask slip..."

    Word. The fact that he was recently a big cheese at AP is just another data point refuting the wingnut fantasy about the liberal media.

  • square1 on November 07, 2012 1:23 PM:

    Mandate? For what?

    The irony of Obama is that he is nearly a polar opposite of what the general perception of him was 4 years ago. At that time he was seen as a visionary leader, whose greatest handicap that he might be too green and lacking in executive experience to handle the nuts and bolts of administration.

    4 years later, we see that Obama is a fairly talented manager -- if you want a competent leader in the situation room during a crisis, Obama is a good choice.

    Bizarrely, if Obama is lacking it is in the "vision thing". I literally have no idea what Obama would do with a "mandate". I can't think of a single, major domestic policy initiative that Obama would back, but for a lack of GOP support. He passed health care reform, nearly exactly how he proposed it. His stimulus bill was the same size that he proposed. More aggressive financial reform was blocked by the White House.

    The only major initiative I see on the horizon would be immigration reform, and I honestly don't believe that Obama would want to pass a purely liberal bill even if he had the votes. I think that he wants a compromise bill because of his inherent respect for intellectually-conservative policy solutions...like cap and trade.

  • Rick B on November 07, 2012 2:01 PM:

    Somehow I see a mandate.

    It's a mandate for an America of true social equality, not one run by wealthy white male christians. It's a mandate for fair and equal access to health care for every American. It's a mandate for a nation that listens to women and which does not misread some archaic "holy?" book as saying two human beings who chose to marry cannot have the rights of automatic inheritance and hospital visitation rights we give to selected families. It's a mandate for looking at reasons why whole swathes of society do not have access to decent, reliable jobs and trying to solve those social problems instead of just blaming the people who suffer from those problems. It's a mandate that says if you work for years at a job you have built some ownership rights in that job, even if the boss decides he needs to buy a new mac Mansion and figures he can get it if he fires you overnight and steals the pension he promised you.

    In short, it's a mandate to move from the primitive rural class-based society depicted in Ozzie and Harriet which the Republicans resent giving up to a modern urban society populated by highly productive and well-educated people. It's a mandate to move towards a modern 21st century America.

  • gratuitous on November 07, 2012 2:23 PM:

    @Rick B: Indeed.

    After reading all the pre-game analysis of what a Romney victory would mean from the Nitwit Brigade, I want to use the election results as a bludgeon and a cudgel against this backwards contingent that would rather see the United States burn to the ground than give up one centimeter--sorry, one inch--of their ill-gotten advantages.

    The last two years, the Republicans in the House have solemnly intoned about "the will of the people" and their self-conferred authority to stop every congressional action that might inure to the benefit of Democrats. Well, it's time to slip that shoe on the other foot and start applying it to some pasty white backsides. The winning of the White House, the expansion of the Senate Democratic majority, and the shrinking of the Republican House majority (despite the gerrymandering chicanery by the likes of Tom DeLay) all point to a public endorsement of Democratic initiatives to make our society work better for the benefit of everyone, not just the overrich.

    And my elected representatives are going to get damned tired of me reminding them of that over the next two years, I can tell you.

  • Doug on November 07, 2012 8:34 PM:

    "Voters pull the lever for candidates, not agendas." Ed Kilgore.

    Really? Are you trying to say that since President Obama didn't lay out a comprehensive, step-by-step program of what he wanted to do during a second term, that means that voters weren't offered and "agenda" and therefore couldn't vote for one?
    Maybe it's me, but during the campaign I got the impression that President Obama DID have an agenda - to continue with what he'd begun during his first two years and been stymied in trying to accomplish during the two years after those. I find it hard to believe that I'm the only voter who may have felt that way.
    If that's not an "agenda", what is?

    I see that square1 is once again demonstrating those psychical abilities that allow one to determine WHY someone does something without any basis in, you know, facts.
    Must be a Democrat in the White House.

  • pjcamp on November 07, 2012 10:31 PM:

    Never underestimate the ability of a Democrat to squander an advantage.

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