Obama Gets Second Chance at a Mandate

President Barack Obama speaks at his election night party Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. President Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.National Journal

Greg Sargent, the well-respected opinion blogger for The Washington Post, asks an important question today: "Why, now that Obama has won a resounding victory, is this suddenly being talked about as a small, no-mandate election?"

From a friendly exchange of emails, I know that Greg disagreed with my election-night analysis that argued against the notion of President Obama securing a mandate Tuesday night. I sided with academics who argue that electoral mandates are a myth, especially in an era of polarization, and with Democratic and Republican strategists who say Obama did himself no favors with a thin campaign platform.

But Greg makes a good case for his point of view. He accurately points out that Republican and Democratic commentators described the election for months as a big choice between two starkly different ideological directions. Quoting now:

"What happened yesterday is very clear. Romney campaigned on a platform of repealing (and not replacing) Obamacare, the greatest expansion of the safety net in 50 years; readjusting the social contract at the core of Medicare, one of the great progressive reforms of the 20th century; rolling back government's role in engineering economic growth and protecting people from the excesses of the private market; and dramatically reducing the amount the rich contribute towards the upkeep of government, on the theory that so doing will lead to explosive growth and broadly shared prosperity."

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"Obama campaigned on the necessity of continuing to implement health reform and the moral bankruptcy of leaving those with preexisting conditions at the mercy of private insurance companies; on preserving Medicare without rewriting the fundamental mission at its core; on expanding government's role in spurring growth, social mobility, and shared prosperity; and on the moral need for the rich to sacrifice a bit more to enable a more robust role for government in improving the lives of the less fortunate."

I think this is one of those debates in which there is no right or wrong answer. Only strong opinions, and I respect Greg's. For the sake of our discussion, I will make two points in response:

  • Obama's margin of victory in Electoral Votes and the popular vote are decisive (Greg calls it a "resounding Electoral College victory") but nowhere near a landslide that would give Obama the authority to act on behalf of a broad majority of the public.
  • Time and money devoted by Obama to amplify small and negative messages undercutting Mitt Romney far outweighed energies devoted to his own platform. Obama's aides repeatedly said that disqualifying Romney was their single greatest strategic imperative. Earning a mandate was not upper mind, and it showed. Obama's most extensive remarks on immigration and deficit reduction were in an off-the-record interview. What does that tell you? He didn't want to be fighting over specific policy proposals that would distract from his central message for voters: Romney is a bad dude.

The nut graf of my analysis sums up the conclusion I drew after nearly two dozen interviews with historians, political scientists, and strategists in both parties:

"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."

And so perhaps that is where Greg and I differ. He believes Obama won a mandate Tuesday night. I believe Obama won a second chance to earn one.