The funny thing about elections is that their meaning undergoes a metamorphosis the very instant they occur. A couple weeks before the vote, a Republican member of Congress declared at a McCain rally, "This campaign in the next couple of weeks is about one thing. It's a referendum on socialism." If you said now that the election was a referendum on socialism, or even mere liberalism, you'd be taken for a left-wing maniac.
Political scientists will tell you that a presidential "mandate" is just a social construct. But it's an important construct, in two ways. Morally, it matters that the president do what the public elected him to do--that, after all, is the point of democracy. And, politically, the majority party would like to know whether voters will reward or punish it for carrying out its agenda.
In reality, no president ever truly has a mandate, in the sense of the electorate voting for him as if his entire platform were a ballot initiative. Candidates' platforms play a role in who wins elections, but so do economic conditions, scandals, the candidates' personalities, and the Election Day weather in Philadelphia.
The proportion of each factor is variable, though sometimes the broad contours can be seen. (Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide was clearly more of an ideological affirmation than Jimmy Carter's 1976 post-Watergate squeaker.) Usually, an election's mandate-iness is hard to pinpoint. The trick is to depict elections that your party wins as pure policy seminars, and elections the other party wins as fluky popularity contests.
Former evil genius (and now just evil) Karl Rove offers a nice case study in how to play the game. "The country voted for change Tuesday," he wrote after the election. "But the precise direction of that change remains unclear. Mr. Obama's victory was personal rather than philosophical." Got that? Voters just liked the inexperienced black guy with the radical preacher, not his policy views. Yet, just a few weeks before the vote, Rove had deemed "people's persistent doubts concerning Mr. Obama" as one of his liabilities. Somehow, Obama's personal reputation not only survived but managed to propel him to victory.
Just for fun, let's recall what Rove said four years ago. George W. Bush, remember, narrowly won by relentlessly turning the race into a contest of personal character. A New York Times poll found that voters favored John Kerry's stance on almost every issue, but "a majority of Americans continue to see Mr. Kerry as an untrustworthy politician." Bush even made one of his central themes an appeal to voters who liked his character but didn't support his policies. "Even when we don't agree," he'd say, "at least you know what I believe and where I stand." Naturally, after the election Rove insisted that Bush had won a mandate.
Both sides can play the mandate game, but Republicans seem to be better, or maybe just more shameless, at it. In 2004, Bush relentlessly boasted a mandate on the basis of his 2.5 percent popular-vote margin, and news organizations like the Times, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, CBS, and many others endorsed the claim. Even in 2000, when Bush lost the popular vote, his supporters crafted a cultural mythology in which Republicans were regular people from the heartland and Democrats a tiny clique of coastal elitists. This endlessly recycled trope helped create the impression of majority status--the political landscape, as one conservative columnist described it, was "a sea of red for Bush with small blotches of blue for Gore"--and helped Bush to govern as though he had a mandate.
Unlike Bush, Obama has declined to claim a mandate, and many Democrats have publicly said that he lacks one. And so, although Obama nearly tripled Bush's 2004 victory margin and did so without having to explicitly solicit the support of voters who disagreed with the core of his agenda, the conventional wisdom has quickly concluded that the public does not support his plans to make the tax code more progressive, reform health care, and the like.
You can argue about how important a role Obama's platform played in his victory. But, to read any newspaper in the days following the election, you'd think that Obama had to start crafting his agenda completely from scratch. "He ran on a platform to change the country and its politics," wrote Washington Post lead political analyst Dan Balz. "Now he must begin to spell out exactly how." Now? I thought that by the end of the campaign even blind and deaf hermits could tell you that Obama had a plan that could be found at barackobama.com/plan. I've resigned myself to the fact that political reporters don't feel compelled to familiarize themselves with the candidates' programs in detail, but they should, at minimum, be aware of their existence.
A related argument holds that Obama cannot carry out his plans because the United States is a "center-right country." Newsweek editor Jon Meacham made this case in a much-discussed cover story, which asserted that Obama would have to move to the right or else "pay for [his] continued liberalism at the polls." Meacham's argument echoes the contention made by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their 2004 book The Right Nation, which explains why the United States is more conservative than other advanced democracies.
Meacham quotes Wooldridge to support his thesis: "Is this a center-right country? Yes, compared to Europe or Canada it's obviously much more conservative." But the question isn't whether Obama can move the United States to the left of Europe, it's whether he can move the United States to the left of where it currently stands.
The practical import of the Obama mandate debate has fallen on the question of whether he should pursue his goal of comprehensive health care reform, which numerous pundits and even some Democrats have tagged as dangerously ambitious. But this is one area where undiluted liberalism enjoys overwhelming public support. The public, by a roughly two-to-one margin, thinks the government has a responsibility to make sure that every American has adequate health care.
Congressional Democrats fear a repeat of 1994--when, as they see it, Bill Clinton over-interpreted his mandate and therefore failed to pass health care reform. This reading has it backward. Clinton's health care plan failed because Congress decided he didn't have a mandate and refused to pass it. If the Democrats fail this time, it will probably be because they psyched themselves out once again.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.
This article originally appeared in the December 3, 2008, issue of the magazine.