No mandate?

Robert Novak tries to make an argument that Barack Obama’s victory yesterday did not amount to a mandate, the somewhat illusory concept that Americans debate every four years after the elections conclude.  Novak insists that Obama didn’t win enough states and the Democrats didn’t win enough seats in Congress to declare a mandate:

When Franklin D. Roosevelt won his second term for president in 1936, the defeated Republican candidate, Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas, won only two states, Maine and Vermont, and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress by wide margins.

But Obama’s win was nothing like that. He may have opened the door to enactment of the long-deferred liberal agenda, but he neither received a broad mandate from the public nor the needed large congressional majorities.

The Democrats fell several votes short of the 60-vote filibuster-proof Senate that they were seeking and also failed to get rid of a key Senate target: Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

In the first place, talk of “mandates” is, and always has been, irrelevant.  What matters is whether the winning candidate has enough votes to move most of their agenda through Congress — and Obama clearly does.  He may not have enough votes in the Senate to keep Republicans from blocking everything, but he has enough for all but the most radical measures to pass.

Besides, as Jazz Shaw points out, Novak declared 2004 a “mandate” for George Bush.  In that election, Bush won fewer states, had a narrower popular-vote margin, and got a smaller Senate majority than the Democrats won last night.  Obama broke through the red/blue line that had dominated national politics over the past eight years.  If we’re talking mandates, that seems pretty clear.

But as I said, the argument about mandates is pointless.  All presidents have mandates — to pursue the policies that won them election.  Winning the election gives them that ability.  Whether they succeed is another matter entirely.

Addendum: Right or wrong, it’s good to hear from Novak, and we wish him well in his fight against brain cancer.