Mandates, bully pulpits, and other presidential myths

UniqueThis 18 November 5, 2021

Voters have “given us a mandate for action on COVID, the economy, climate change, systemic racism,” Joe Biden asserted on Nov. 6, 2020, before he had even been declared the official winner of the presidential race.  

It was a bold statement, meant to turn the page from the Trump presidency. Mr. Biden was using his bully pulpit to prepare the ground for aggressive action. 

Presidents like to talk about mandates, but those can be something of a myth. Most of the time, it’s impossible to pin down why people vote the way they do.

One year later, President Biden and the Democrats, narrowly in control of both houses of Congress, appear undaunted. Even after Tuesday’s twin electoral shocks – the loss of the Virginia governorship and near-defeat of the incumbent Democratic governor in solid-blue New Jersey – Democratic leaders were vowing to plow ahead with the party’s agenda.

“People want us to get things done,” the president said Wednesday. 

But twin bills – a bipartisan one on infrastructure and a social spending bill – remain mired in the House.

Already, critics on the right – and even some within the Democratic Party – have begun charging that Mr. Biden and the Democrats misinterpreted their 2020 mandate. That may miss a deeper truth.

“I don’t believe anybody ever has a mandate,” says Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, a moderate, stepping into a basement elevator at the Capitol complex.

Voters have “given us a mandate for action on COVID, the economy, climate change, systemic racism,” Joe Biden asserted on Nov. 6, 2020, before he had even been declared the winner of the presidential race.  

It was a bold statement, meant to turn the page from the Trump presidency and convey momentum. Mr. Biden was using his bully pulpit to prepare the ground for aggressive action, including on progressive policies the former vice president and longtime senator from Delaware might himself once have viewed skeptically. 

One year later, President Biden and the Democrats, narrowly in control of both houses of Congress, appear undaunted. Even after Tuesday’s twin electoral shocks – the loss of the Virginia governorship and near-defeat of the incumbent Democratic governor in solid-blue New Jersey – Democratic leaders were vowing to plow ahead with the party’s agenda.

Presidents like to talk about mandates, but those can be something of a myth. Most of the time, it’s impossible to pin down why people vote the way they do.

“People want us to get things done,” the president said Wednesday. 

Friday morning, House Democratic leaders had appeared ready to hold votes on both a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a sweeping $1.75 trillion social spending bill, which no GOP members support. But as the day wore on, hopes faded that they could pass both bills before lawmakers left town for next week’s recess. Their best hope appeared to be passing the infrastructure bill and holding a preliminary vote on the bigger bill that would pave the way for it to be passed when they got back from recess.

But even that hope appeared uncertain as of deadline, with progressives reiterating their demand that both bills be passed together and moderates refusing to support the spending bill without independent analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, which will take an estimated two weeks.

Already, critics on the right – and even some within the Democratic Party – have begun charging that Mr. Biden and the Democrats misinterpreted their 2020 mandate. 

But there’s a deeper truth at play: Presidential “mandates” are something of a myth – especially when it comes to the specifics of policy. Most of the time, it’s impossible to pin down why people vote the way they do, and so it can’t be said with certainty that a candidate has been elected to take specific policy actions. 

The 2020 election result was clearly a rejection of President Donald Trump and his handling of COVID-19, says political scientist Julia Azari of Marquette University. “But COVID would have been hard for any president,” adds Professor Azari, author of a book on presidential mandates. “And it’s not clear how the Biden administration was supposed to produce normalcy.” 

Mr. Biden’s decision to require vaccination against COVID-19 for workers at companies with more than 100 employees – the guidelines of which were released Thursday – has majority support among Americans. But there’s a deep split along party lines, making the policy a likely flashpoint in next year’s midterm elections. That may well be the case even if the policy is ultimately credited with helping to subdue the pandemic. 

A longtime Democratic observer echoes Mr. Biden’s comment about the need to “get things done.” In the 1994 and 2010 midterms, two Republican “wave” elections, the Democratic failure wasn’t necessarily in the specifics of bills they didn’t pass. “It’s that it looked like the Democrats were in disarray and chaotic, and there was too much arguing among themselves,” says Jim Kessler, co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

And while it’s true that President Barack Obama did pass the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, Mr. Kessler suggests there wasn’t enough time for Democrats to sell the new law and allow voters to digest it before the November midterms. 

“This is not to say that every single thing in the Build Back Better agenda needs to be passed,” Mr. Kessler says. “But the major pieces do. And you want the infrastructure bill. It’s been at the one-yard line for several months now.” 

The $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act includes sweeping provisions to support parents; expand access to affordable housing, education, and health care; and invest $500 billion in clean energy and climate initiatives – something both President Biden and Speaker Pelosi had hoped to tout at the two-week U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, that will wrap up Nov. 12.

Even after Tuesday’s elections, a former top Senate aide says he still thinks Mr. Biden should “swing for the fences” with the two bills. 

“I believe he correctly assessed that the country had pressing needs, especially after four years of the former president, and he is bound and determined to pass as robust a package as possible,” says Jim Manley, who served as communications director for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. 

But there’s no guarantee that enacting a major social spending bill will help Democrats next November, or that voters will even know what’s in it – despite what Mr. Biden and his team do, including a national publicity tour. 

The power of the presidential bully pulpit is itself a bit of a myth, especially today, with a plethora of TV channels, news sites, social media, and entertainment options competing for attention. 

Back in 2005, President George W. Bush learned the hard way that trying to enact what he had campaigned on the year before was easier said than done. His top domestic priority was to reform Social Security, allowing Americans to invest part of their contributions in private accounts. He made it a central feature of his State of the Union address, then toured the country. The initiative went nowhere.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have differing views as to whether Mr. Biden and the Democrats have a mandate from voters. Senate Republicans believe the Democrats have misinterpreted the 2020 election results and are engaging in massive overreach – for which they will pay a political price next fall.

“Democrats have decided to convince themselves that there was a mandate to dramatically change the social framework of the country,” says Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt. “They should have gotten their first strong indication [Tuesday] that they have overread what voters were doing a year ago.”

Sen. Jon Tester, a centrist Democrat, offers a more nuanced take. “The sky isn’t falling, but we need to pay attention to it,” says Senator Tester. “From my perspective in Montana, it’s ‘let’s get some things done that will help lower costs for families and reduce taxes.’”

Still, when asked if the president and the party have a mandate from voters for their big social spending bill, Mr. Tester says, “I don’t believe anybody ever has a mandate,” as he steps into a basement elevator at the Capitol complex.

The view from a veteran House member – and a different wing of the party – demonstrates the level of frustration with the Senate.

Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva, former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, blames the Democratic loss in the Virginia governor’s race on tired messaging. But he also casts blame at moderates in the upper chamber, who have pushed back on key policies in the bill as well as the original price tag of $3.5 trillion. “The process that we’re going through right now with reconciliation [Build Back Better] and infrastructure, we should have settled that sooner,” he says. “I hope that people bear some responsibility for that, particularly on the Senate side.”

Politicians don’t typically acknowledge publicly that their party may lose control of Congress in upcoming elections. But speaking to reporters last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hinted as much. 

“No one ever said that passing transformational legislation like this would be easy. But we are on track to get it done because it’s so important. And it’s what the American people need and what they want,” said Senator Schumer, signaling a sense of urgency to make a deal while his party still controlled both chambers of Congress. “This is a moment – it may be a moment that doesn’t come back again.”

Staff writers Christa Case Bryant and Dwight A. Weingarten contributed to this report. 


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