What Is This “Mandate” Thing Of Which You Speak?

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.