What happened? Well, it may be that the president’s approval rating has been steadily sinking. It may be that economic growth is at a standstill despite the record performance of the Dow. It may be that the administration has found itself on defense on questions of civil liberties and campaign finance.
But I think the larger problem is that Obama, like reelected presidents before him, bought into the myth of the mandate. He over-interpreted the results of a personal victory in a status-quo election. Winning tax increases as part of the fiscal cliff deal boosted his already ridiculously oversized confidence. But he turned out to be wrong. And conservatives and Republicans might as well revel in this moment, before we figure out a way to spoil it.
“The American people do not give mandates,” Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina notes in an article in the current American Interest, “America’s Missing Moderates.” “They hire parties provisionally and grant them a probationary period to prove their worth. A major electoral victory by the out party generally says no more than ‘for heaven’s sake, do something different.’” Such was the case in 2006, 2008, and 2010.