In his Wednesday news conference, President Obama said, “I am more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms.” Yet he may have been engaging in a level of overreach just in interpreting his own reelection.
He talked about “the very clear message from the election last week.” He described his tax program—increasing taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year—as “a basic principle that was debated extensively during the course of this campaign.” He added, “I think every voter out there understood that, that was an important debate, and the majority of voters agreed with me.”
When pressed on whether he believed he had a mandate that extended beyond his clear claim of one on his tax policies, the president cleverly sidestepped the question with a bit of political jujitsu: “With respect to the issue of mandate, I’ve got one mandate: I’ve got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that have been working hard to try to get into the middle class. That’s my mandate. That’s what the American people said.”
Thus, the president interpreted the election outcome in terms of campaign rhetoric. He stands with the middle class, while his opponents—largely, House Republicans—stand with the rich. That is the great fault line that guided his campaign, and it will be the fault line that will shape his second-term agenda.
The problem here is that the president’s victory was razor-thin in terms of the popular vote—a mere 2.5 percentage points separating him from his opponent. True, his Electoral College margin was substantial and is worthy of consideration. But, given the nature of the electoral system, a swing of a mere 330,000 votes or so in a number of key states could have tilted the electoral vote against the incumbent and sent GOP candidate Mitt Romney to the White House. Further, Obama collected some eight million fewer popular votes this year than he did during his story-book 2008 presidential victory.
So big questions rise up as to just what Obama can claim in the nature of a mandate, and what kind of approach would fit his precise political victory.
First, it is true that every president, upon reelection, claims a mandate—and should. The American people exercise their hiring and firing authority over their presidents every four years, and their judgments merit consideration and respect. Obama won, and that victory gives him the right to say he speaks for the American people in crafting his program and pressing his agenda.
But that isn’t the whole story. A 50.5 percent vote total after four years in office suggests the voters weren’t exactly wildly enthusiastic about his first-term performance. And the big drop in votes cast on his behalf bolsters the view that the American people simply weren’t prepared to place in Obama’s hands the kind of power and discretion that translates into a real electoral mandate.
And then there’s Congress. The voters, while giving their president a narrow reelection triumph, declined to increase his sway over the legislative branch to any appreciable extent. Again, to the extent the election results bear on voters’ regard for their president and his leeway in commanding the political system, it would seem that the electorate gave Obama a second term with a proviso—that he be constricted in his ability to take the country wherever he wants to.
Thus, Obama’s so-called mandate would seem to be roughly akin to what the voters bestowed upon George W. Bush in 2004—after a first term rather similar to Obama’s in that it was only moderately successful and barely met the threshold for reelection. Indeed, while Bush’s first-term mistakes—an ill-conceived war and general fiscal irresponsibility—weren’t sufficiently dire to get him tossed out of office, they caught up with him in his second term, rendering his overall performance a failure and stirring a major voter assault on Republican office-seekers in both 2006 and 2008.
That’s the lesson Obama should ponder as he looks toward his second term. He should note that he’s no Ronald Reagan, whose first-term performance netted him a reelection vote total approaching 60 percent. Now that’s a mandate. In our time, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon reached similar electoral heights in seeking second terms.
It’s true, of course, that Johnson and Nixon promptly found themselves in political thickets that destroyed their standing with the American people and cancelled out their mandates altogether. And Reagan struggled during his second term with the politically dangerous Iran-Contra scandal.
But what a president does with a clear electoral mandate is a question that is separate and distinct from how he gets it in the first place. Johnson, Nixon and Reagan enjoyed soaring approval from the American people when seeking second terms; Obama had no such approval on November 6.
That’s why his apparent approach to the big fiscal issues facing the country, as reflected in his news conference pronouncements, may be a bit out of sync with his actual standing with the American people. As Chris Cillizza wrote on the Washington Post web site, Obama “made sure to set the choice (as he sees it) on the fiscal cliff debate.” It was either his tax program, with a big hit for families above that $250,000 threshold, or there would be no deal.