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The power in a president's mandate

U.S. President Barack Obama waves to the crowd as he walks onstage for a campaign rally in Richmond, Virginia October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Kevi
U.S. President Barack Obama waves to the crowd as he walks onstage for a campaign rally in Richmond, Virginia October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Kevi

By William E. Leuchtenburg

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 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.

Instead of embarking on a fruitless quest for a precise definition of mandate, it is more rewarding to explore what a real mandate looks like.

Be forewarned that there is never perfect congruence between ballots cast and subsequent presidential behavior. In every contest, some voters are more interested in personality than policy, and others merely register traditional party identification. Moreover, in 1932 the Republican incumbent, President Herbert Hoover, was so strongly disliked that the Democratic challenger, Roosevelt, who knew that he was running well ahead, thought it ill-advised to risk articulating controversial positions.

On a couple of occasions — notably at Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates — he even voiced a conservative message. (When Roosevelt was set to return to Forbes Field in the 1936 campaign, he instructed his speech writer, Samuel Rosenman, to prepare a draft claiming that massive New Deal spending was consistent with his 1932 emphasis on frugality when he was last at the ballpark. Rosenman came back later that day with a facetious answer: "Mr. President, the only thing that you can say about that 1932 speech is to deny categorically that you ever made it.")

For the most part, however, FDR offered the electorate a clear choice in 1932 by announcing that he intended to be a transformational president. "The country needs, and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation," Roosevelt declared at Oglethorpe University in Georgia. In Albany Roosevelt, who as governor of New York had created the first comprehensive system of unemployment relief, urged Americans to focus their attention on "the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid."

Roosevelt was the first candidate in American history to deliver an acceptance address at a party convention. He flew through squalls to Chicago in a tri-motored plane, twice having to land for refueling. When he appeared before the cheering delegates, he said: "I have started out on the tasks that lie ahead by breaking the absurd tradition that the candidate should remain in professed ignorance of what has happened for weeks until he is formally notified.… You have nominated me and I know it, and I am here to thank you for the honor. Let it … be symbolic that in so doing I broke traditions. Let it be from now on the task of our party to break foolish traditions.… I pledge you, I pledge myself to a New Deal for the American people."

In a campaign whose outcome may legitimately be regarded as yielding a mandate, it is important, too, for the opponent to demarcate major disagreement. That Hoover surely did.

"This election is not a mere shift from the ins to the outs," Hoover asserted. "It means deciding the direction our nation will take over a century to come." Roosevelt, he maintained, had embraced "the same philosophy of government which has poisoned all Europe" and was spouting "the fumes of the witch's cauldron which boiled in Russia."

In November 1932, the nation left no doubt about its verdict. In ousting Hoover, Roosevelt became the first Democrat to enter the White House with a popular majority (50 percent or more of the ballots) in 80 years — not since Franklin Pierce in 1852.

Hoover received the pitiful proportion of less than 40 percent of the popular vote. FDR swept every state south and west of Pennsylvania. He ended the long period of Republican predominance and began the creation of "the FDR coalition" whose influence persists, though in muted fashion, in the 21st century.

After taking office in 1933, Roosevelt sent 15 legislative requests up to the Hill. Congress, registering the mandate, passed all 15 — with numbers of Republicans crossing party lines to support him.

How is the 1932 precedent pertinent today? Clearly, Obama's victory margin fell considerably short of FDR's — and Democrats ought to be circumspect about claiming too great a mandate. But before this year, no one has ever suggested that, unless an election triumph is of huge dimensions, a president is proscribed from enforcing a law enacted by a previous Congress.

At times, the rhetoric of a negative mandate finds a place in the theater of the absurd. In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's web video underscored his intent in a terse slogan: "Day one. Job one. Repeal Obamacare."

Yet Republicans, after being soundly beaten a year ago, maintain that, in shutting down the U.S. government unless the president puts healthcare in abeyance, they are being faithful to the popular will. To take that claim seriously would be to strip the conception of "mandate" of all meaning and to render it a farce.

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