When President Bush beat John Kerry by 2.5 percentage points in 2004, Jim Vandehei (then with the Washington Post and now executive editor of Politico) portrayed the result as a national ratification of the Bush agenda.
“With bigger Republican congressional majorities and a decisive victory in the popular vote, Bush heads into a second term with a clearer mandate and greater power than he did in 2000 to put a conservative, free-market stamp on U.S. domestic and foreign policy,” Vandehei wrote with Dana Milbank. “The president and his advisers interpreted Tuesday's election results as a ringing endorsement of his goals of reducing the size of government, providing taxpayers greater control over their income, and continuing, if not intensifying, the war on terrorism and other security threats.”
So how did Vandehei’s Politico see President Obama’s win—which Wednesday night stood at 2.4 percentage points and growing?
As “a tenuous triumph wrested from a reluctant electorate,” that was “too narrow and too rooted in the Democratic base to grant him anything close to a mandate,” according to the site’s lead story Tuesday night.
In the same vein two days earlier, Vandehei himself warned, with Mike Allen, that an Obama victory dependent on “Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites” would lack “a broad mandate.”
Vandehei didn’t respond to a request for comment about his criteria for gauging a president’s mandate. But this isn’t just about Politico (ok, it's partly about Politico). As we wrote last week, the claim that Obama lacks a mandate began on the right, but since Tuesday it’s seeped into mainstream political coverage. Ron Fournier of National Journal summed it up, in a story titled: “Obama victory comes with no mandate.” Dan Balz of The Washington Post was a little more generous, judging in a front-page story that the results produced “an uncertain mandate,” although Obama will “attempt to claim one.”
But as Vandehei’s flexible standards suggest, this mandate business—and by the way, we’re not talking about two straight guys doing dinner, which we’re fine with—is in the eye of the beholder. After all, in 2004, Bush, like Vandehei, interpreted his win as giving him a mandate to privatize Social Security, though he’d avoided campaigning on the issue. But Democrats held firm in opposition, Republican lawmakers got scared, and the effort failed. What seemed like a mandate turned out to be something less.
More important, it’s a misreading of what elections are for.
It’s one thing to predict that Obama will have a tough time moving much of his agenda—immigration reform, or climate-change legislation, in particular—through the House, which remains under GOP control. That’s undoubtedly true. But to say that Obama lacks a mandate suggests that if he tries, he’ll somehow be acting illegitimately, going further than voters gave him permission to go.
But that’s why we have Congress. Lawmakers will look at the election results and weigh their own views and interests, and either support or oppose the things Obama wants to do. He’ll be as successful as the political realities dictate. But like every president before him, elected by landslide or in a squeaker, Obama has every right to push hard for what we wants.
His margin of victory—let alone the demographic makeup of his supporters—doesn’t have much to do with it.