“My guess is, neither candidate offered specifics because it would have been politically untenable,” McCurry said.
McKinnon said voters would have rewarded Obama or Romney for addressing hard truths. “People are hungry for an agenda, hungry for specifics, hungry for anything that looks like a solution,” McKinnon said. “I think there are ways to do it without painting yourself in a corner.”
So the vagaries of history, his times, and his message will deny Obama an automatic mandate. He has to earn it. The question is, how?
First, lower expectations. Obama promised voters he would change the nature of politics in his first term. He failed. Rather than promise the unattainable, Obama needs to acknowledge the difficulty of tasks ahead, starting with curbing the nation’s debt.
Eskew suggested Obama say something like: “Look, I learned some things in Washington. I thought we could all get along, and I learned that is not the case. I want to do some things for the country but I can’t do them unless people support me — not just in the election, but also after.”
Second, commit to the hard and humbling work of governing. Schmooze with lawmakers, hold regular news conferences, travel the country to tout legislation, and dig into the details of bills and regulations.
Karen Hughes, an adviser to George W. Bush, had this advice for the famously aloof president: “Get in the limo and go to the Hill and get seen working with lawmakers. People will appreciate the effort.”
Third, reach out to Republicans with concrete and symbolic gestures. “There is going to have to be compromise to get anything done, especially with big issues,” said Mike Feldman, another strategist on Gore’s 2000 campaign.
Obama may need to bring in new advisors who can work with Republicans. “He needs to ignore the blind partisans from either party, and find the uniters,” said Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis. “If he does he will become an even more historic president.”
McCurry noted that soon after his 1980 victory, Ronald Reagan reappointed popular former Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield as ambassador to Japan. “Gestures like that build goodwill,” McCurry said. “It’s increasingly how you claim the mandate and how you move forward that determines the outcome.”
Altman, the political science professor from Pennsylvania, struggled for the advice he would give no-mandate Obama. “You are going to govern unsuccessfully. You are going to fail,” he said with a chuckle.
But then he hedged. Maybe expectations would be lower for Obama than they were in 2009, Altman said. “They expect him to just hang on for another four years and hopefully not screw it up too much,” Altman said. “They will take 2016 as a new day.”
That’s not much of a mandate. But it is a second chance.
Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Gore in 2000, said Obama should set his sights accordingly. “The only mandate that will be clear as daylight,” she said, “is to break the gridlock of Washington.”