The controversy over responsibility for the government shutdown has brought about one surprising consequence: a debate over the meaning of the term “presidential mandate.”
Republicans are asserting President Barack Obama has no warrant to call on Congress to fund the Affordable Care Act — since his victory margin in 2012 was so slender and the voters kept Republicans in control of the House of Representatives. The White House, meanwhile, is countering that the healthcare legislation was not only approved by both houses of Congress, and validated by the Supreme Court, but also was authenticated by his election triumph — after a campaign in which his opponent made hostility to the healthcare reform law his main point of attack.
“Presidential mandate” is an ideal brickbat in a political struggle because it is so carelessly used. Republicans who question Obama’s credentials today were quick to claim after the 2004 presidential election that, in then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s words, “the nation responded by giving [Bush] a mandate.” They ignore the reality that Obama gained re-election by a larger percentage of the popular vote than George W. Bush had received, and that his advantage in the Electoral College was 126 votes in contrast to Bush’s 35.
Journalists have further muddied the waters. After Bush’s 2004 re-election win, for example, an NPR reporter stated, “By any definition, I think you could call this a mandate.” Following Obama’s victory in 2012, however, NPR headed its website: “For Obama, Vindication, But Not a Mandate.” So debased has “presidential mandate” been in the currency of discourse that exasperated scholars are recommending that the expression be jettisoned.
But to abandon the idea of mandate altogether is to conclude that, in a democracy, American citizens can never express their will effectively and to ignore those times when they did so. In the 20th century, there is no clearer instance than the 1932 election, which ushered in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s electrifying First Hundred Days of the spring of 1933 and the birth of the New Deal.