Obama Will Have to Bargain for His Mandate
Voters don't give presidents mandates, they must be bargained
November 7, 2012
After all the confetti has fallen, the champagne corks collected, and the computer projections having given way to actual numbers, what does the 2012 election mean?
After a lengthy and often negative campaign, President Barack Obama secured another four years for himself and his party, winning 303 Electoral College votes—and maybe more depending on Florida's final outcome—most credibly from states where it was not clear he would win (Virginia, Ohio, and possibly Florida), and narrowly winning the popular vote (50 percent). More impressive than that is the Democrats maintained (and actually increased) their margin in the Senate and picked up one trophy win in the House. (These numbers reflect the day-after totals, so the Democrats may pick up more seats, depending on how some of the undeclared Congressional seats break.)
It would be tempting for the White House (and pundits) to suggest to the voters that the president gained a mandate at the end of a hard won victory. Yet, the truth is that mandates are not concretely "born" but are instead "bargained." Political science scholars argue that mandates are perceptions of political opportunity by presidents who use them as a bargaining tool. A president will claim a mandate if he believes he can prospectively mobilize more voters than members of Congress to support his policy views. Historically, claiming a mandate is the equivalent of putting a major policy change on the national agenda. In general, presidents claim mandates to attempt to use that language and positioning to pressure Congress.
For the 2012 election to be a "mandate" in this way, the president must claim not only that the people back him but also what specific policies they are suggested to support. The president's speech on election night only vaguely hinted that his healthcare initiative was proving successful and popular. It remains to be seen in the coming days whether or not the White House suggests a mandate for a specific policy or initiative which they can use to bargain with Congress.
Even if a mandate is claimed, Congress has to agree with the White House about the veracity of the claim. If Congress rejects the president's claims of a mandate—or, as House Speaker John Boehner did in a statement after the president's re-election, assert that the American people re-elected a Republican Congress, too—then the Republicans in the House and Senate are poised to discredit any claim of an Obama mandate and balk at negotiations over new Obama policy initiates or solutions to immediate issues involving automatic tax and spending increases to take place at the first of the year. It is not clear that either side has an advantage in these negotiations, considering the dynamic with either the present or future Congress.
Imminent scholar of democracy Robert Dahl wrote that "no elected leader is uniquely privileged to say what an election means." Clearly the president's victory signals faith in him and his efforts to handle the nation's fragile economy and delicate foreign policy. Voters clearly trusted his vision for the future, even if only slightly more than Mitt Romney's vision. Yet these outcomes do not make a mandate. The White House must push for something tangible or the president's re-election is just an invitation to struggle for four more years.