Perhaps the most overused and misunderstood term in politics is the word mandate.
Does simply winning an election give the winning candidate and party a mandate? Not automatically.
Does the size and scope of the win determine the power of the mandate? It can. By any measure President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats won a decisive victory.
Not only did Obama win 332 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 206, the president won three million more total votes. As only the fourth president in 70 years to win two elections by more than 50 percent, Obama joins an elite group which includes Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
Of the thirty-three U.S. Senate races this year, Democrats (and Independents who will caucus with Democrats) won twenty-five. Republicans won just eight.
But in the House, although Democrats gained a few seats and won more total votes, Republicans still retain control.
Which means we have the same divided government we had $6 billion and two years ago.
Is there a possibility things can change?
More than half of those questioned by the Pew Research Center following the election aren’t optimistic.
But voters also clearly said during this election season that they are tired of the partisanship, polarization and dysfunction in Washington and want the parties to work together to get something done.
Amazingly, many of our elected officials finally seem to have gotten the message.
The election was “a mandate for us to find a way to work together on solutions to the challenges we face together as a nation…The American people didn’t give us a mandate to do the ‘simple’ thing. They elected us to lead.”
That was House Speaker John Boehner speaking the day after the election.
“They said loud and clear that they won’t tolerate dysfunction. They won’t tolerate politicians who view compromise as a dirty word… They're looking for consensus. They're looking for common sense. Most of all, they want action,” said Obama a few days later.
Addressing the ‘fiscal cliff’ of expiring tax cuts and federal spending reductions slated to take effect at the end of the year will be the first and possibly most serious test of the nascent willingness to work together.
Barack Obama and the Democrats have said taxes must be raised on the wealthy. Exit polls revealed that 60 percent of voters agree with them.
While Republicans still say they oppose raising tax rates, many including Boehner favor tax reform and say they are willing to accept increased revenue if it is part of a plan that includes entitlement reform, which many Democratic leaders oppose.
Boehner in his post-election remarks pointed to the bipartisan 1986 tax reform, achieved by Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, as a model for what is possible.
In his first term, Obama did not show himself to be much interested in the carrot and stick persuasion and horse trading with members of Congress in which Roosevelt, Reagan, O’Neill and Lyndon Johnson excelled.
Almost as if calling for back-up, Boehner has exhorted President Obama to lead, and “do the right thing for our country” and he appears willing to try to bring his unruly Republican members with him in the effort.
There could not be a more perfect moment for Obama to become the leader Americans want him to be. The Obama team ran a masterful reelection campaign. Now it is time to bring the same kind of effort and resources to bear in lobbying members of Congress to get on board a grand fiscal bargain.
“I intend to be a better president in the second term than I was in the first term,” Obama declared this week.
Aides to the president have indicated he is willing to use the bully pulpit to apply pressure not only on recalcitrant Republicans but also members of his own party who don’t seem willing to put governing ahead of politics.
If Obama and his White House staff can’t cut a deal with House and Senate leaders they should go directly to individual members of Congress to find the necessary votes.
There are willing partners out there not only on Capitol Hill but in the business community with whom Obama met this week.
There are already many in Congress willing to help push for a deal. The Senate Gang of Six, led by Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, has been working for more than two years trying to hammer out a Simpson-Bowles style deficit reduction plan.
There is also a bipartisan group led by moderate Republican Steve LaTourette of Ohio and Democrat Jim Cooper of Tennessee who voted in favor of Simpson Bowles in the House this spring. LaTourette, like Olympia Snowe in the Senate, is a moderate Republican who is voluntarily leaving Congress at the end of this year citing frustration over the body’s dysfunction and the inability to get things done in a bipartisan way. Those two would undoubtedly welcome the chance to be part of a comprehensive deficit deal as their last act in office.
There are also a number of other members of Congress who have agreed to be part of a “Problem-Solvers” coalition being built by the non-partisan No Labels group – www.NoLabels.org which has adopted the slogan ‘Stop fighting and start fixing’.
These are all promising signs that there are members of Congress who actually want to make things work.
After his 2004 reelection George W. Bush declared, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
Now it’s time for Barack Obama to do the same. But he will need to move quickly. The further away we get from the election, the less potent his political capital will be, the more members of Congress will be looking toward their next election and the less likely congressional Republicans will be willing to come on board.
In his first post-election news conference, Obama acknowledged this political reality but also talked repeatedly about the need for compromise and action and his willingness to try to make it happen. “What I think the American people don’t want to see is a focus on the next election instead of a focus on them. I don’t have another election.”
This is a chance for Barack Obama to put it all on the line for the American people and convince others who want to do the right thing to join him.
As he said toward the end of his news conference, the American people “deserve a better government than they've been getting.”