A presidential mandate?

The Economist digs into the question of whether Barack Obama now has a mandate and concludes that there’s really no way to know:

Wittgenstein is helpful here. Consider proposition no. 114 in his “Philosophical Investigations”: “One thinks that one is tracing the outline of a thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.” So in claiming that President Obama “has” a mandate or “lacks” one, we are just giving voice to our conception of what a mandate is and whether we’d like to confer one on a given president. The mandate is in the eye of the beholder.

Presidents have mandates, then, if we perceive them as having mandates, and don’t if we don’t. Which means that President Obama has one and doesn’t have one. And nailing down the matter is even more problematic than that. When we perceive a president as having a mandate, we are making a claim about what the American people meant when they cast their votes. To be a little too obvious: there is no “mandate” box to check on electoral ballots. You just vote for a candidate. There is no formal or informal way for the people to “give” a president a mandate. So when journalists and politicians weigh in on the subject they are really psychoanalysing the electorate writ large. That’s no mean task.

The magazine goes on to note that even exit polls may not be sufficient to imply the contours of a possible mandate for specific policies:

Polls can tell us something about voters’ policy preferences, but they cannot affirm or disprove the existence of a mandate. Let’s take tax policy in this fall’s election as an example. A Washington Post exit poll showed that 59% of voters nationwide “said the economy was the biggest issue facing the country.” A similar proportion seemed to share Mr Obama’s stance on taxation:

Six in 10 voters said that taxes should be increased, including nearly half of voters saying that taxes should be increased on income over $250,000, as Obama has called for. Just over one-third said taxes should not be increased for anyone. But more than 6 in 10 voters said taxes should not be raised to cut the budget deficit.

This may be the best evidence available for the existence of sufficient popular support to raise tax rates for the upper brackets, but its strength withers when the numbers are analysed. First, if 60% of voters want higher taxes, and only a fraction over 50% voted for Mr Obama, that means at least one-sixth or so of voters seeking tax hikes did not, for one reason or another, vote for the president. And if “nearly half” of voters sign on to the Obama plan to increase taxes on those who earn over $250,000, this means that more than half of voters prefer a different proposal. Where does that leave Mr Obama’s purported mandate?

Meanwhile, the same magazine analyzes the new prospects for tax reform.

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