The ads have been removed from network television, candidates’ signs have been pulled from yards and campaign workers are no longer knocking on Americans’ doors every other day. So by all accounts, one might think that the campaign season is over and that politicians are again attending to the business of governing. Think again.
President Barack Obama was back in full campaign mode this week, meeting with small business owners, CEOs of major corporations and middle-income Americans to sell his solution to averting the so-called “fiscal cliff” — the automatic round of trillions in spending cuts and tax increases that will go into effect next year unless the president and Congress can reach a deal on a deficit reduction plan. Republicans, too, held a series of events in Washington, D.C., and across the country with small business owners to stress the importance of keeping taxes low during a sputtering economic recovery.
But all eyes are on the president as he attempts to use the bully pulpit to secure support for his “balanced” proposal, which would couple some spending cuts with higher tax rates on income over $250,000 for families or $200,000 for individuals. White House spokesman Jay Carney said again Tuesday that the issue of Obama’s proposed tax hikes on top earners “was perhaps the most debated, the most discussed, the most analyzed, for a year,” and that Americans voiced their approval of the increases by voting the president back into office into November. Yet if the public already provided Obama with a mandate to raise taxes, why is he back on the campaign trail exhorting them to stand behind him again? The truth is that Obama wants to maintain the perception of a mandate — which scholars like Grossback, Peterson and Stimson argue is more relevant than the actual election results.
Still, maintaining the perception of a mandate also means garnering broad-based support, which is difficult to achieve in an era of hyperpartisanship. Obama has not fared well at appealing to those in the opposite party, as noted by scholar Gary Jacobson in his article, “The President’s Effect on Partisan Attitudes.” Voters who registered as independents after becoming disillusioned with both parties during the debt ceiling debate last year still tend to support the party to which they initially belonged. And among the last three presidents, Obama has had the strongest impact on the party identification of voters. “In 2010 (midterm elections), individual-level consistency between presidential approval and the House and Senate vote — voters opting for the president’s party’s candidate if they approved, for the rival party if they disapproved — was the highest yet measured,” Jacobson wrote.
There is some indication that a bipartisan compromise based off a perceived public mandate might be possible. According to a recent poll by CNN, Republicans would also favor a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases in a deficit reduction deal by a margin of 52-44 percent. But it’s not at all clear whether those more right-leaning voters would prefer cutting out loopholes or the raising of rates on top income levels that Obama favors. Additionally, an identical 72 percent of respondents to the survey said both Obama and congressional Republicans should be willing to sacrifice some of their beliefs to achieve a compromise. Putting all the mandates, campaigning and political posturing aside, perhaps what’s required more than anything else is leadership.