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.