Nov 8, 2012

Krauthammer says that Obama doesn’t have a “mandate.” In 2004 he argued that Bush had one. According to Krauthammer:

[Obama] won by going very small, very negative,” said Krauthammer, speaking on FOX News as throngs of Obama supporters danced in celebration over Obama’s re-election victory. “This is not a mandate either in the numbers or the way he campaigned,” warned Krauthammer, adding, “He did not campaign on any ideas, anything large, anything important.

If memory serves, Bush did not wage a relentlessly positive campaign against Kerry.

Moreover, consolidating the largest expansion of health insurance in decades, protecting laws designed to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure in the financial sector, advocating major immigration reform, and supporting a major expansion of civil liberties in the form of same-sex marriage*… well, such things strike me as big ideas and important policies.

I admit that these (and other) parts of the Obama campaign may seem “small” for relentlessly self-interested gainfully employed white heterosexual males who really, really like invading other countries with large numbers of combat troops. But for a lot of people they matter a great deal.

Given that Krauthammer’s “big ideas” criteria doesn’t make much sense, maybe we should look more closely at what might drive his conclusion. As the numbers from 2012 are basically in, maybe we can figure out what does, in fact, transform a mandate of “0” into a mandate of “1”. Below are some possibilities:

  • In 2004 Bush defeated Kerry by narrowly carrying Ohio with 50.8% of the vote. Obama carried Ohio with 50.1% of the vote. The absolute difference in their margins of victory was roughly 10k votes. Of course, if Romney had carried Ohio, Obama still would have won, as he accumulated more than enough electoral votes with Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and New Hampshire… and likely Florida.
  • The Bush-Kerry national vote breakdown was 50.74-48.27%. The Obama-Romney vote breakdown is currently 50.4-48.1%. There might be a threshold between 50.4 and 50.7 that translates into a mandate.
  • In 2004 the Senate went from 51R-49D** to 55R-45D**. In 2012 the Senate appears to have gone from 53D**-47R to 55D**-45R. As the absolute numbers clearly don’t matter, it might be the case that one garners a mandate when +n>2.
  • In 2004, the Republicans gained 3 seats in the House of Representatives. In 2012 the Democrats have (at least) broken even. In both elections, the Republicans retained control of that chamber. Perhaps a majority in the House determines who has a mandate? Or would Democratic pickups in outstanding races results in an Obama mandate?
  • In 2004 a Republican was re-elected to the Presidency. In 2012 a Democrat was. Perhaps only Republicans get mandates?

This turns out to be trickier than I thought. None of these, except the last, seems to constitue a meaningful difference between 2004 and 2012. It might be the case that some combination of these factors accounts for the existence (or lack thereof) of a mandate. Or perhaps there’s some other critical distinction, such as the what letter the President-elect’s last name begins with, some arcane numerological formula, or… well, we won’t go there. Suffice it to say that it would be helpful to to know what other Presidents Krauthammer et al. believe acquired mandates.


*Sorry, but I can’t resist suggesting that support for equal rights for gays and lesbians should be enough to earn Obama at least one mandate — if he wants it.

**Includes independents who caucus with the Democrats.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.