Does he or doesn't he? Does President Obama have a mandate from the voters heading into his second term or not? That question has been argued back and forth for a week now, and will continue to be sparred over for months to come. But with most of the votes counted in the country, we can say this with some certainty: He's got more of a mandate than do House Republicans.
Not surprisingly, the GOP and its allies have taken a strong stand against any Obama mandate. Per Politico, here's Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, this year's losing vice presidential nominee:
When asked if Obama had a mandate on taxes, Romney's running mate told ABC News: "I don't think so, because they also re-elected the House Republicans. So whether people intended or not, we've got divided government."
He continued: "This is a very close election, and unfortunately divided government didn't work very well the last two years. We're going to have to make sure it works in the next two years."
Let's unpack that. First off, Ryan undercuts his own point with the caveat about "whether people intended or not." It's hard to claim a countermandate while admitting that it may be an unintentional one. And in fact if you look at the vote totals, it's hard to claim a countermandate at all, given that more people voted for House Democratic candidates than voted for Republicans. According to a running tally compiled by the Cook Political Report's House editor, David Wasserman, House Democratic candidates got 56.3 million votes last week, while House GOP-ers got only 56.1 million. Republicans were saved by the fact that the last round of redistricting gave them a structural advantage in terms of the congressional map. Democratic voters tend to be concentrated, especially in cities, so they got more votes in fewer districts.
Ryan goes on to assert that, "this is a very close election." But is it really? I think Charlie Cook has it right here:
It's certainly true that 51 percent (rounding up from 50.5) to 48 percent is close, but since the end of World War II, five elections have been closer. Mitt Romney won only two more states (Indiana and North Carolina) than John McCain did, and even if he had won Florida, the GOP nominee would still have needed to win Ohio, Virginia, and either Colorado or Iowa, based on the sequence of the election margins.
The danger for Republicans clinging to that solace is that it sidesteps the inconvenient truth that they have now lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, from 1992 on. For the GOP, this was more than one bad night.
And while we're on the topic of presidential vote totals, according to Wasserman's figures, Obama won 62.9 million votes. So if the House GOP wants to compare mandate size, 6.8 million more people voted for Obama and his clearly stated policy of raising taxes on the wealthy than voted for House Republicans.
Look, I think that talk of mandates is overblown and anachronistic. If Obama had won, say, 350 electoral votes and close to 54 percent of the vote would Republicans concede that he had a mandate and cooperate in policymaking? That's what he got four years ago and all the GOP gave him was gridlock, noncooperation, and suggestions of political illegitimacy. And while we're recalling recent history, recall that when George W. Bush won re-election eight years ago with a smaller percentage of the vote, the Wall Street Journal called it a "decisive mandate."
Meanwhile Obama plans to hit the hustings to gin up support for his position in the upcoming battle over the wildly misnamed "fiscal cliff." We'll see how well that turns out—the power of the president in situations like this is often overstated—but mandate or no, he indisputably has the "bully pulpit."
Corrected on 11/15/12: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified which publication David Wasserman works for. He is House editor at the Cook Political Report.