In the aftermath of any victory, presidential candidates proclaim a new mandate to move forward on the values of their campaign. Barack Obama will probably be no different, but National Journal’s Ron Fournier warns that claiming a mandate after this election would be politically dangerous — and a fantasy:
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 Tuesday night, he is doomed to fail.
Mandates are rarely won on Election Night. They are earned after Inauguration Day by leaders who spend their political capital wisely, taking advantage of events without overreaching. Obama is capable – as evidenced by his first-term success with health care reform. But mandate-building requires humility, a trait not easily associated with him.
“The mandate is a myth,” said John Altman, associate professor of political science at York College of Pennsylvania. “But even if there was such a thing as a mandate, this clearly isn’t an election that would produce one.”
He pointed to Obama’s small margin of victory and the fact that U.S. voters are divided deeply by race, gender, spirituality and party affiliation. You can’t claim to be carrying out the will of the people when the populous has little shared will.
Fournier has this most correct in his initial thought. In order to claim a mandate, one has to have run on clear, positive values. The only real takeaway from the Obama campaign was that Mitt Romney was too extreme or too willing to change to be President, which doesn’t leave much of a positive basis for Obama to claim a mandate. The first appearance of even the skeleton of a second-term agenda came 567 days into the campaign, and that consisted of vague pledges to stick to the status quo.
Furthermore, this was the unique re-election where an incumbent President did slightly worse than his first election. Obama lost two states he won, and the popular-vote margin will be narrower on a percentage basis than in 2008. That doesn’t equate to a ringing vote of confidence in Obama’s agenda; in fact, it sounds a bit like a warning that a second term had better produce more than the first.
Perhaps Obama understood that last night. His victory speech didn’t hail a mandate, but instead focused rhetorically on the need for better solutions from everyone across the board. How long will that last? We’ll see, but shortly after his last victory, Obama didn’t hesitate to tell Republicans to get used to the fact that “I won.” Perhaps he learned a lesson from that, but it wouldn’t have come from winning his next election.
The Chicago Tribune notes that Obama may not have learned the lesson at all:
“You made your voice heard,” Obama said in his acceptance speech, signaling that he believes the bulk of the country is behind his policies. It’s a sticking point for House Republicans, sure to balk at that.
The same voters who gave Obama four more years in office also elected a divided Congress, sticking with the dynamic that has made it so hard for the president to advance his agenda. Democrats retained control of the Senate; Republicans kept their House majority.
Here’s Obama’s full speech from last night: