For almost as long as the presidential office has existed in the United States of America, president-elects have sought to affirm their policy agenda by claiming an electoral mandate from the people of the nation. Indeed, as Robert Dahl asserts, Andrew Jackson was the first president to claim that his election “confers on him a mandate from the people in support of his policy” because the president is “uniquely representative of the people.” However, is the concept of a presidential mandate even legitimate? Can a president truly assert that their election necessarily means a wholesale approval of their policy agenda, or is the claim for a mandate merely a political tool used to persuade the American people?
As an article in The Economist recently argued following President Barack Obama’s reelection in November, mandates don’t actually exist in any definitive form, but rather exist if they are perceived to exist. The author writes, “In claiming that President Obama ‘has’ a mandate or ‘lacks’ ones, we are just giving voice to our conception of what a mandate is and whether we’d like to confer one on a given president.” This idea of a sort of amorphous mandate is illustrated by the fact that Senator Dianne Feinstein (of Obama’s own political party) stated that Obama did receive a mandate from the people, while Speaker of the House John Boehner (a Republican and staunchly opposite Obama on most issues) denied any mandate – winning parties will claim a mandate while losing parties will deny it.
Furthermore, given the nature of the Electoral College with both the popular vote count and the electoral college votes in each state, which are the votes that truly decide the presidency, presidents would be hard pressed to assert a mandate when candidates can lose the popular vote, but still win the presidency. As Terry Newell points out in his article for The Huffington Post, “While the American system is designed to produce an Electoral College winner, it is not designed to give that winner the kind of mandate he or she expects.” Newell goes on to say, “Winning the electoral vote is not even a guarantee of winning the popular vote (remember the election of 2000). Even if the winner gains both an electoral and popular vote majority, the latter could well be a spread of 51 to 49 percent or less.” With a majority in the Electoral College, not even in the popular vote, as small as 51 percent, one can hardly say that the American people are mandating a certain policy agenda.
Then, we must consider the supposed presidential mandate in the context of the greater American political system, in which the executive branch is not the only area of government with the ability to claim a mandate – one could argue that those elected to the legislature also have the same, if not greater, ability to claim electoral mandate. In an article for the National Journal, Ben Terris says, “in the ‘people’s chamber’ there are essentially 435 different mandates.” In that case, think in the context of the current divided party government with Obama in the White House and a Republican dominated Congress. If both sides can in fact claim a mandate from the people of this country, which mandate wins? Or which can be seen as more legitimate?
Terris says that “as few as ten districts voted for the president and also for a GOP House candidate. These split-ticket parts of the country are usually incubators for potential compromise and now there are fewer of them than ever.” If only 10 districts in the whole country actually gave a mandate (still operating on the contingency that mandates in fact exist) to both parties, the rest of the nation only gave a mandate to one of the parties, creating tension in the policy agenda-setting process. Newell too highlights this tension, saying “assuming that electoral success provides a mandate ignores that the people and the Framers, in their wisdom, have invested a lot of other officials with ‘mandates’ too.” Finally, Ezra Klein, in his article for The Washington Post, emphasizes this point, saying “the frequent elections in the House and staggered elections in the Senate, the expansion of the filibuster, the influence of the Supreme Court and the polarization of the political parties combine to constrain power,” and ultimately diminish the authority of a so-called mandate.
As such, I would argue that the mandate does not exist in any tangible or quantifiable sense, but rather that it exists to the extent that it is used as a tool of political communication. Whether by the president claiming a mandate for a certain policy agenda, or by a fifth-term senator claiming a mandate from his or her district, political actors communicate with the term “mandate” to lend authority, significance and legitimacy to their actions and policy issues. The term can also be wielded as persuasive power in order to pass a bill. Klein affirms that the term “mandate” can truly only be used in the sphere of political communication, saying that “a swing voter in Ohio might turn against Romney because of his links to Bain Capital without intending to endorse Obama’s ideas on immigration reform.”
In their article, authors Shamir, Shamir and Sheafer say “the electorate empowers, and diffuse elites define meaning in an interactive manner played out primarily in the mass media.” More so than a command from the public, a mandate is a vehicle for transferring information between elected officials and the country. Furthermore, in using the term “mandate”, political figures are not responding to an overwhelming demand, but rather attempting to create the feeling that certain actions or policy agendas are in fact mandated – because they perceive a mandate as coming from the people, they in turn use it as a tool for communicating their actions back to the people. So does President Obama, several months in to his second term in office, have a mandate? No, but in structuring his message along those lines, he may hope to persuade the American citizens that a mandate is exactly what they gave him.
– Jamie Gnazzo