Politics and Public Opinion, Polls

Does Obama have a mandate?

Image Credit: Marc Nozell (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

Image Credit: Marc Nozell (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

The White House and commentators on the Left are incensed that Republicans would oppose President Obama’s opening offer on the fiscal cliff negotiations. The offer, they claim, is what Obama campaigned on and he has a mandate to act on those policies. But what kind of mandate does the president have? The question is important for Republicans to answer, but it’s also important for the president to do so as well. If he overplays his hand before his second term even starts, the president will be restricted as to what he can do for the remainder of his time in office. The polls give us three reasons why the White House doesn’t have a broad policy mandate when it comes to current negotiations with Congress.

The first is found within the exit polls themselves. A key component of the president’s proposal is increasing taxes on high-income earners. And the exit poll shows support for the proposal. A plurality of 47% told exit pollsters that taxes should be increased on those making more than $250,000 a year. But at the same time, a large majority of Americans (63%) disagreed that taxes should be raised to cut the budget deficit. This response seems to contradict voters’ endorsement of upper-income tax hikes. But it’s not unusual for the American public to hold contradictory opinions on a variety of issues. Both sides have ground to stand on in the court of public opinion. You could say both sides have a mandate.

Second, the current fiscal cliff negotiations involve considerations about both the economy and the budget deficit. Obama did not win either issue. A majority of voters thought the economy was the most important issue, and Romney won those voters 51% to 47%. Romney also narrowly beat Obama on which candidate would better handle the economy, 49% for Romney and 48% for Obama. The same pattern appears on the deficit, where 49% of voters thought Romney would better handle the issue as opposed to 47% for Obama. In other words, voters gave a slight edge to Obama’s opponent on the larger issues at play in the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Third, when it comes to how Americans would prefer to tackle the budget deficit, Obama’s proposal runs counter to public opinion. In a recent USA Today and Gallup poll, a strong plurality of 45% would prefer to reduce the deficit through spending cuts and tax increases equally. Thirty percent said mostly spending cuts, 10% said only spending cuts, and 11% said mostly or only tax increases. Since the president’s proposal would fall under the “mostly tax increases” category, it doesn’t seem that Obama has public opinion behind him. Not by a long shot.

Claiming an election mandate that isn’t really there is a time-honored tradition in American politics. And while Obama clearly won the election, it may not be for the reasons his supporters think. He won because voters viewed him as the more empathetic candidate who better understood their problems. And while this is a perfectly legitimate reason for people to choose a president, it doesn’t bestow a policy mandate.

6 thoughts on “Does Obama have a mandate?

  1. The USA Today/Gallup Poll is far more telling than the Fox poll, which shoehorns opinion about the budget deficit into a “tax-only” frame, bifurcating opinion along increase/not increase lines. Studies have long shown that voters “want something for nothing” (see: Sears and Citrin’s 1985 study of taxation in California for a fascinating look at voter “schizophrenia” regarding taxation and services). By only offering a “yes/no” proposition about what to do about the budget deficit, the question stacks the deck, as it were. In this case, the question is rendered largely useless.

    Conversely, the Gallup poll question is much more realistic. Here, by offering a wide selection of possible responses, we are able to gauge a better view about what respondents actually want in relation to other options. In this case, it seems clear that a balanced approach would, in fact, be a mandate–although this term is certainly bandied about ad nauseum .

  2. The GOP has blathered for four years that we have a spending problem but for four years they have refused to seriously specify any cuts other than entitlements.

    They waited four years to force this POTUS out.

    Now that he has flogged their hinies, they STILL do not
    to list out serious cuts. Nope. They want Obama to list their cuts!

    what a bunch of Neanderthals. They deserved to lose the election and if they keep on..like this sooner or later even the most gullible of their supporters are going to start to realize just what frauds they are.

  3. “Now that he has flogged their hinies, they STILL do not
    to list out serious cuts. Nope. They want Obama to list their cuts!”

    You’re such a hack, Larry. Don’t like the GOP’s spending cuts? What are Obama’s? He’s only the President of the United States.

    Obama’s latest “offer” to the GOP was $1.6 trillion in tax hikes and more spending masked as “stimulus.” Yet, you bang the drums demanding more specifics from the GOP.

    • The GOP simply lacks the courage of their claimed convictions.

      If they were something other than feckless weasels – they would forthrightly lay down their plan – and support it.

      instead they’ve been playing hidey-seek because they are afraid to face the American people with their plan.

      it’s as simply as that.

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