NOW that Barack Obama has won re-election, politicians and pundits are debating whether the president has a “mandate” from the American people and, if so, what that mandate entails.Naysayer Jamie Chandler argues that “second term mandates are nonexistent” and Charles Krauthammer says that “Obama won but he’s got no mandate.” Representative John Boehner seems to agree.
Who’s right? Well, no one. Mandates aren’t quite “myths”, as political scientist Robert Dahl argued in a 1990 article, but neither are they readily identifiable entities about which we can make confident assertions. Arguing whether Mr Obama has a mandate is like debating whether somebody has mojo, or whether basketball star LeBron James is “in the zone” on a given night: there’s a discussion to be had, but no way to come to a definite conclusion.
Wittgenstein is helpful here. Consider proposition no. 114 in his “Philosophical Investigations”: “One thinks that one is tracing the outline of a thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.” So in claiming that President Obama “has” a mandate or “lacks” one, we are just giving voice to our conception of what a mandate is and whether we’d like to confer one on a given president. The mandate is in the eye of the beholder.
Presidents have mandates, then, if we perceive them as having mandates, and don’t if we don’t. Which means that President Obama has one and doesn’t have one. And nailing down the matter is even more problematic than that. When we perceive a president as having a mandate, we are making a claim about what the American people meant when they cast their votes. To be a little too obvious: there is no “mandate” box to check on electoral ballots. You just vote for a candidate. There is no formal or informal way for the people to “give” a president a mandate. So when journalists and politicians weigh in on the subject they are really psychoanalysing the electorate writ large. That’s no mean task.
How do observers “trace the frame” of the presidential mandate? Patricia Conley, a political scientist at Northwestern University, examines the concept in terms of how mandates are used by presidents. Wittgenstein would approve of this approach; “the meaning of a word”, he wrote, “is its use in the language.” Here is Ms Conley’s explanation from her 2001 book:
In the aftermath of an election, politicians try to figure out what the outcome signifies. In an environment of imperfect information, they must try to distinguish between idiosyncratic events like a weak nominee and long-term political trends like ideological change… They never have perfect information about voters, and yet they must decide on a policy agenda. The task of studying electoral mandates must therefore focus on explaining when presidents feel they have enough popular support to ask for major policy changes.
Polls can tell us something about voters’ policy preferences, but they cannot affirm or disprove the existence of a mandate. Let’s take tax policy in this fall’s election as an example. A Washington Post exit poll showed that 59% of voters nationwide “said the economy was the biggest issue facing the country.” A similar proportion seemed to share Mr Obama’s stance on taxation:
Six in 10 voters said that taxes should be increased, including nearly half of voters saying that taxes should be increased on income over $250,000, as Obama has called for. Just over one-third said taxes should not be increased for anyone. But more than 6 in 10 voters said taxes should not be raised to cut the budget deficit.
This may be the best evidence available for the existence of sufficient popular support to raise tax rates for the upper brackets, but its strength withers when the numbers are analysed. First, if 60% of voters want higher taxes, and only a fraction over 50% voted for Mr Obama, that means at least one-sixth or so of voters seeking tax hikes did not, for one reason or another, vote for the president. And if “nearly half” of voters sign on to the Obama plan to increase taxes on those who earn over $250,000, this means that more than half of voters prefer a different proposal. Where does that leave Mr Obama’s purported mandate?
Ms Conley sets a minimum degree of popular electoral support to qualify as a mandate, arguing that George W. Bush’s historic Supreme Court-announced win in 2000 did not fit the bill. Mr Dahl is even stingier. “More than a bare majority is necessary to a mandate,” he writes, and there must be evidence not only that voters had a certain policy preference and voted for the president, but that a large proportion voted for the president because of their policy preferences. So Mr Dahl finds no mandate for President Kennedy, who garnered under 50% of the popular vote, no mandate for President Reagan in 1980, who got less than 51% of the popular vote, and no mandate for President Reagan in 1984—despite his landslide in the popular vote—because Democrats did so well in Congress that year.
With Speaker Boehner’s assertion that “we’ll have as much of a mandate as [Obama] will…to not raise taxes”, it is clear that the GOP-controlled House of Representatives is not about to grant the president any kind of deference as he begins his second term in office. If Mr Obama is able to push his tax proposals through Congress it will not be because he was given a mandate or because he claimed one. Legislative success will come if Mr Obama is skillful politically and is able to wrangle support from key legislators at key moments in the process. As Mr Dahl writes, “no elected leader, including the president, is uniquely privileged to say what an election means.” That goes for bloggers, journalists and other political actors too. It’s time to move beyond the vacuous mandate talk and get going with good old-fashioned politics.
(Photo credit: AFP)
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