5 reasons why the next president could govern with a mandate

The Week

A close election might not matter

My former boss, National Journal Editor-In-Chief Ron Fournier, gives five reasons why the next president won't have a mandate after this election. I respectfully disagree.

First, Fournier cites history. "More often than not, Congress trims the president’s sails, leaving both the leader and his followers disappointed. "Presidential claims to a mandate, such as President G. W. Bush in 2004, are misleading to the public and the office-holder," said Anthony Brunello, professor of political science at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla."

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But the point about 2004 counters the evidence. Bush acted like he had a mandate and he was able to govern as if he did, even though he didn't. External events after 9/11 and his swagger after he LOST the popular vote in 2000 shunted a lot of energy into the executive branch. Claiming a mandate from a close race might not be fair, but presidents who govern meekly do so at their peril. President Clinton, after all, might not have won in 1992 if Ross Perot hadn't picked off traditional Republican resentment/libertarian voters. But Clinton acted like a president who was swept in by history.

Reasons two and three for Fournier: Vapid campaigns and partisanship. No argument here; the Obama campaign was relentlessly negative against Romney, and Romney's campaign largely returned the favor. It's true that President Obama didn't present something sparkling new in terms of an agenda, but that's because he's been hamstrung by the reality of facing a Republican House and the sequester issue. Romney did not want to foreclose upon any options. Both candidates acted in the best interests of their governing agenda. Voters won't punish them for that. Voters also bemoan partisanship but rarely punish those who are partisan. The challenge, of course, is for a President Romney or President Obama to figure out a way to govern if one or both parties (depending upon who wins) decides to obstruct.

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Reason 4 — a second term curse — is kind of magical. There are too few two-term presidencies in the modern age to make any sort of claim about the sociology of the executive branch in the 5th, 6th and 7th years. What we do know: if Obama wins, implementing health care reform will be a huge administrative challenge that may well take up a lot of his time.

Reason 5 for Fournier is that right-wingers will keep Romney from compromising with Democrats. This may well be true. Romney has surrounded himself by advisers who are more conservative than he is. And he will be deferential to the Republican base. But he also knows that his own standing depends upon how quickly he creates jobs. Compromising with Democrats over tax reform and a stimulus is the quickest way to free up money and provide U.S. companies with a sense of stability.

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So will the next president have a mandate? That question is not as important as this question: will he govern as if he had one?

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