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Every president claims to have a mandate. Does Trump actually have one?

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) holds up a 'Make America Great Again' hat during a press conference at the US Capitol on November 15.
Win McNamee / Staff

Donald Trump “just earned a mandate,” Paul Ryan said immediately after Donald J. Trump’s surprise victory. And indeed, conditions are ripe for Trump and his team to argue that Congress should grant him deference in executing the agenda he laid out on the campaign trail.

Liberals are not going to want to hear this, but Trump’s victory — though it did not extend to the popular vote — has the strong potential to be cast as a mandate. It was surprising, favorable to one party, and fought between presidential candidates with very distinct perspectives.

For his opponents, this news is not as bad as it seems. Debates over mandates are commonplace in American presidential politics. But when presidents claim mandates, it signifies weakness as much as, if not more than, strength. Mandate narratives can create compelling politics in the short term, but they offer little leverage in the long term.

What is a mandate, anyway?

The birdcages of history are lined with stories about election mandates. Most of the arguments are familiar: The election was too negative to be a mandate (a vote against Clinton, Democrats will argue in the current case, and not for Trump); the election was a victory but an incomplete mandate; a mandate would be an overreach. And yet many of these claims amount to little more than a distinction without a difference. What value would a mandate add? The president is the president.

Most political science research suggests that the ability of the president to sway members of Congress is indirect and limited. Unilateral powers like executive orders belong to the president regardless of the victory margin. So what, really, is the point of even trying to claim a mandate after the election?

Mandates are about legitimacy rather than about power. When presidents need to come up with a justification for their use of power, when they are expanding or defending the boundaries of the office — that’s when mandates come into use. In my research on presidential mandate claims, drawing on an analysis of more than 1,500 presidential communications from 1929 through 2009, including press conferences and major and minor speeches, I found a distinct pattern. Although election margins have tended to be tighter since the 1970s, presidents have talked more about how those election results justify what they’re doing.

This tendency began with Nixon and Carter, but became especially pronounced in the past two presidencies. George W. Bush and Barack Obama frequently used mandate rhetoric to respond to critics. The need for this kind of defensive posture, born of polarization and shaky trust in institutions, is one thing about the Trump presidency that is likely to represent more continuity than change.

The idea of a presidential mandate traces its roots back to Andrew Jackson’s expansion of presidential power. Jackson unabashedly used the power of the presidency to get involved in policy debates, and didn’t even pretend to defer to Congress. Jackson interpreted the 1832 election as a mandate to kill the Second Bank of the United States.

Later, Progressive Era presidents, notably Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, used the concept of a mandate to justify a stronger presidency. They reimagined the role of the office and its relationship with Congress, parties, and the people — using what Roosevelt called the “bully pulpit” to reach voters and persuade legislators. Here, too, the mandate was a rhetorical device to enhance the impression of executive power.

President Carter’s surprising role in the evolution of mandate politics

The modern era of mandate politics dates back to a president that few would consider pivotal: Jimmy Carter. This isn’t because Carter claimed the 1976 election was any kind of stunning victory for him or his party. The margins were modest, the majority — 50.1 percent — thin, and the message technocratic and muddled.

Nevertheless, Carter was the first president elected after Watergate. He was the first Democrat after civil rights, and after Vietnam. His task wasn’t just to govern or to patch together the broadening cracks in his party. It was also to bring the presidency out of disrepute. To do this, he drew on the election and the campaign in ways that were distinct from what Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt had done.

When pressed on issues, or on low poll numbers, Carter responded that he was doing what he was elected to do, and following up on what he had promised during his campaign. He was carrying out his mandate. Nixon and Eisenhower had touched on these themes, and most modern presidents had made some public statements about the meaning of the elections that installed or returned them to office. But Carter used the election — not margin of the result, but the basic democratic process — to respond to a larger crisis of legitimacy in presidential power.

After Reagan’s 1980 victory, the new president and his communications team picked up where Carter had left off, armed, however, with a landslide victory that better fit the conventional notion of a mandate. In public, Reagan talked about a mandate to change course economically. In other settings, his staff sent memos internally — and responded to letters from critics — citing their stance on abortion and other “cultural” issues among the reasons they were elected. The language of a mandate was applied to a wide array of positions that Reagan had supported, regardless of what actually drove voters to vote for him.

Mandates in the era of partisan polarization

Carter and Reagan served when the current period of party polarization was in its infancy; the Bush and Obama presidencies arrived when polarization was in full bloom. Both Bush and Obama claimed, at various points, that the election had posed a clear choice to voters on a range of issues, from specific policies to broad governing philosophies. But given an electorate that is both deeply and closely divided, elections provide very different options to choose from, and yet only a few percentage points separate the winners from the losers.

Moreover, so-called “wave” elections like 1994, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2014, and 2016 — sweeping gains by one party — have become so common as to render the idea of a long-lived mandate meaningless. And yet the idea of an election mandate for a governing vision has never been more central to presidential politics.

Today, mandate claims — from Bush’s arguments in 2005 that he had been elected because of his promises to reform Social Security to Obama’s argument that Republican economic ideas had been rejected at the ballot box in 2008 — are often not about power to enact an agenda so much as they are about justifying and informing that agenda in the first place.

But while connecting policy to the wishes of the electorate is a powerful idea, one that is central to what democracy is supposed to do, it also creates a false sense of transparency and accountability. It leaves questions about where the buck really stops. At a certain point, “I’m just doing what I was elected to do” is not a very robust policy justification.

So what does this mean for our new president-elect?

On the one hand, Trump has been quick to emphasize his public support as the justification for his candidacy. Indeed, he impressively swept to power despite opposition — at first, anyway — from the Republican Party establishment. The populist dimensions of his candidacy suggest that linkages to popular support and invocations of the silent majority will continue to be part of the rhetorical strategy. Trump has used popular support to fend off criticism, as well: When asked whether his campaign rhetoric went too far, the president-elect himself responded by saying, “No. I won.”

That phrase should sound familiar to anyone who remembers Obama’s identical statement to Republicans in 2009 (“I won”) while discussing economic policy.

Of course, these claims are nowhere near equivalent. Trump’s mandate claim was not defending policy disagreement but defending campaign rhetoric that insulted various groups of Americans and threatened to jail his opponent, defying a number of established norms. Moving forward, we can expect Trump’s mandate talk to draw on his campaign positions — but selectively, with an eye to the demands of the moment. Given how many contradictory claims he floated, that gives him quite a lot of freedom.

Early decisions to keep campaign promises by nominating a quasi–white nationalist as a key political adviser and contemplating a registry for Muslim immigrants suggest that the routine dynamics of mandate politics will exist alongside an agenda that is anything but normal.

Research suggests that mandate claims, despite their tenuous connection to reality, can be effective in affecting legislative behavior. Research also shows that these perceptions can be influenced by how politicians and the media frame elections. But these effects are short-lived. Political science studies show that legislators will change their behavior in response to the perception of a mandate election — but only for so long.

The idea of an election mandate may help Trump get policies through Congress early on, although public attitudes seem to suggest against it. Make no mistake, the repercussions of these policies for the US and the world will be very real. But when it comes to the political impact of those policies, he’ll be on his own.

The question of whether the election was a mandate is always the wrong one. The objective facts don’t matter very much. Presidents use mandate rhetoric in an effort to reshape the political reality that confronts them. They do this especially when they are dealing with criticism, divisions, and challenges to their use of power. We don’t yet know what the Trump administration will bring, but these themes seem likely to be prominent.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University and the author of Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate. She also blogs at Vox’s Mischiefs of Faction.


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