Mandate claims in American politics are hogwash, and they are especially dubious in mid-term elections where an entire branch was not evaluated for re-election. Mandates imply that there is a clear date on which majorities are counted. There isn't, because ours is a republic in which the staggered electoral calendar introduced the principle that republican "truth" would emerge from a conversation between different majorities at different cross sections in time. The president elected in 2008 is still around - so as far as the Constitution is concerned, the Democratic mandate from 2008 is no less relevant and carries over into 2011 as much as the Republican mandate from 2010.
The Constitution understands that what you and I believed in 2008 and what we believe in 2010 could be the same or it could be different - but what matters is that the Constitution predicted our fickleness and finds its average between the two. The change that Obama promised in 2008 was as much mandated as the change that the Republicans and the Tea Partiers resisted in 2010. This is an important lesson for both Republicans in Congress and the President. If mandates are fragile, even meaningless things, then at the very least, neither should make too much of their own.
But still, since we are committed to majoritarian rule, it would be worthwhile to try to divine exactly what the American people are looking for in the next two years. Just where is the median position between the electoral mandate of 2008 and 2010? Should Barack Obama try to do what Bill Clinton did, and find a "third way" compromise with Republicans, and John Boehner should try to, like Newt Gingerich, push a purist Republican agenda? On balance, I think Obama should resist the urge to over-react, and Boehner should resist the urge to over-reach.
Bill Clinton's mandate from 1992 was not only much smaller (with 45 million Americans voting for him, he received a plurality but not a majority of the popular vote), it was also a mandate ("Putting People First") that wasn't based on a campaign that was categorically and emphatically about change. When his party lost 54 seats in the House in 1994, it was certainly humbling compared to the relatively paltry size of his own mandate.
Less so for Barack Obama. About 90 million voters turned out last week. Assuming that a vote for a Republican candidate for the House and the Senate and in any state can be meaningfully clumped together to articulate a generic Republican mandate for 2010, then about 47 million voters (52 percent of 90 million) signed on to the Republican Pledge for America in 2010.
That leaves an undiluted and quite unambiguous vote for one man, Barack Obama, in 2008 that was one and a half times the number of votes cast for 286 Republican women and men (239 in the House plus 47 in the Senate) in 2010, since 132 million Americans turned out in the 2008 elections, and about 70 million chose Barack Obama and his version of change. That's a pretty hefty differential, and if so 2011 should not be replayed as if it were 1995.
If Obama should not over-react, neither should Republicans over-reach. Republicans should not be blamed for playing the hype game today. It sets the bargaining position in their favor when they take control of Congress in January. But, Republicans should be careful with too much of a good thing. The higher the expectations they set, the harder they can fall. (Obama found that out.)
Obama and the new Congress should understand that the system under which they operate was designed to facilitate a conversation between voting generations. And since the system, in effect, anticipated the fickleness of voters, it is incumbent on those we have selected to represent us in government to enact a careful titration of two mandates loudly articulated against each other. If we we might have been too quick to believe Obama in 2008 and too quick to be disheartened in 2010, our elected officials ought to exercise independent and long-sighted judgment in government with the knowledge that they are not merely delegates of a people who may change our minds every day, but trustees of the republic which is here to stay.