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.
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.
Andrew Jackson was the first president to claim that the desires of the public overrode Congress’s constitutional prerogatives. Virtually every president since Jackson has claimed the mantle, even while lacking two ingredients of an electoral mandate: a landslide victory and a specific agenda. More often than not, Congress trims the president’s sails, leaving both the leader and his followers disappointed.
“Presidential claims to a mandate, such as President [George] W. Bush in 2004, are misleading to the public and the officeholder,” said Anthony Brunello, professor of political science at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Some mandates are easily and obviously claimed, usually as an extension of calamitous events. Examples: Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Lyndon Johnson after the assassination of John Kennedy, and Bush after 9/11.
Claiming a mandate can lead a president down policy paths that are reckless and unpopular. Bill Clinton overreached on health care reform in his first term and Bush misread his reelection as a mandate for Social Security reform in 2005.
In a capital as polarized as Washington, even a landslide victory and detailed campaign platform wouldn’t secure a president’s agenda.
“Mandates may not exist in Washington anymore with the hyper-partisanship we now see associated with every substantive or political move on the Hill,” said Steve McMahon, strategist for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
“I’m generally an optimist, but it’s hard to see how there is a mandate for anything other than more of what we’ve seen the last several years,” said GOP strategist Mark McKinnon, who helped elect and reelect the younger President Bush. “There’s not a good scenario for how this turns out.”
Obama hurt his cause by running a hard-edged and negative campaign against Republican Mitt Romney, hoping to convince recession-weary voters that his rival was unworthy of the job. He gave lip service to an agenda, publishing scaled-back and repackaged ideas from his first term in a 20-page pamphlet. Obama’s message was often microtargeted to Democratic coalitions rather than the broad electorate.
“To me, as a supporter, it’s been frustrating because President Obama had the opportunity ... to make his campaign about something larger,” said Democratic consultant Carter Eskew, top strategist to Al Gore in 2000.
Mike McCurry, former press secretary for President Clinton, said it’s easy to criticize candidates for ducking solutions to the nation’s intractable problems such as budget deficits, social mobility, and poverty. But the fact is, any campaign proposal would have been grounds for attack.
“My guess is, neither candidate offered specifics because it would have been politically untenable,” McCurry said.
McKinnon said voters would have rewarded Obama or Romney for addressing hard truths. “People are hungry for an agenda, hungry for specifics, hungry for anything that looks like a solution,” McKinnon said. “I think there are ways to do it without painting yourself in a corner.”
So the vagaries of history, his times, and his message will deny Obama an automatic mandate. He has to earn it. The question is, how?
First, lower expectations. Obama promised voters he would change the nature of politics in his first term. He failed. Rather than promise the unattainable, Obama needs to acknowledge the difficulty of tasks ahead, starting with curbing the nation’s debt.
Eskew suggested Obama say something like: “Look, I learned some things in Washington. I thought we could all get along, and I learned that is not the case. I want to do some things for the country but I can’t do them unless people support me—not just in the election, but also after.”
Second, commit to the hard and humbling work of governing. Schmooze with lawmakers, hold regular news conferences, travel the country to tout legislation, and dig into the details of bills and regulations.
Karen Hughes, an adviser to George W. Bush, had this advice for the famously aloof president: “Get in the limo and go to the Hill and get seen working with lawmakers. People will appreciate the effort.”
Third, reach out to Republicans with concrete and symbolic gestures. “There is going to have to be compromise to get anything done, especially with big issues,” said Mike Feldman, another strategist on Gore’s 2000 campaign.
Obama may need to bring in new advisors who can work with Republicans. "He needs to ignore the blind partisans from either party, and find the uniters," said Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis. "If he does he will become an even more historic president."
McCurry noted that soon after his 1980 victory, Ronald Reagan reappointed popular former Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield as ambassador to Japan. “Gestures like that build goodwill,” McCurry said. “It’s increasingly how you claim the mandate and how you move forward that determines the outcome.”
Altman, the political science professor from Pennsylvania, struggled for the advice he would give no-mandate Obama. “You are going to govern unsuccessfully. You are going to fail,” he said with a chuckle.
But then he hedged. Maybe expectations would be lower for Obama than they were in 2009, Altman said. “They expect him to just hang on for another four years and hopefully not screw it up too much,” Altman said. “They will take 2016 as a new day.”
That’s not much of a mandate. But it is a second chance.
Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Gore in 2000, said Obama should set his sights accordingly. “The only mandate that will be clear as daylight,” she said, “is to break the gridlock of Washington.”