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Presidential Mandate: The Right to Govern

Background

You may have heard the word “mandate” before, probably in terms of rules or regulations. For example, students are mandated to attend school for a given number of years - it’s not optional, it’s mandatory. However, the word “mandate” also has a political meaning, and it’s a little more complicated.

Explanation

While students have an obligation to go to school, presidents are often believed to have an obligation to make changes they promised their voters would see. This obligation, known as the presidential mandate, gives them power and legitimacy in government.

Presidential Mandate

A presidential mandate refers to the authority of a president to govern as a representative of the people, an authority granted by their successful election to office. The assertion of a presidential mandate is typically based on the claim that a majority (or plurality) of voters support the president’s policy agenda, and they should therefore be allowed to enact it once in office.

How It Works

The idea of a presidential mandate is subjective and politically charged. Newly elected candidates are most likely to invoke the idea of a mandate, specifically as a justification for executing their ideas even when there might be opposition from other political actors, such as congressional members. There are also different ideas of how the presidential mandate works. Some are inclined to believe that every winner has a mandate to govern simply by virtue of winning their election. Others assert that the mandate is only as strong as the president’s margin of victory. For example, a president who wins in a landslide, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, could be said to have a decisive mandate, and is thus deserving of greater freedom to enact his desired policies. However, a president who wins by a very slim margin of victory, such as George W. Bush in his campaign against Al Gore, may be seen as having a weak mandate or no mandate at all, since voters were so divided over the opposing platforms. 

Modern scholars have written about the presidential mandate as a myth or a fictional device used solely as rhetoric to further a political agenda. After all, there is no basis for the idea in written law - the words “presidential mandate” do not appear anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. However, the concept of a presidential mandate is powerful not because it is any kind of legal statute, but because it is an idea of how power and leadership work in a representative democracy. This idea can be appealing to many people, especially for presidents who consider it a free pass for doing what they want in office.

So What?

The president of the United States may be the most powerful person in the country, but the source of their power stems from the citizens they represent. While they may believe they have a mandate to enact the policies they prefer, their ideas may not always serve the people’s interests. No one is infallible, even our elected leaders. It’s important that we keep an eye on what our representatives are doing in office, and judge for ourselves whether or not they have a right to do so. Citizens are responsible for holding politicians accountable, especially because the First Amendment protects the right to publicly protest and debate current affairs. No one should be blinded by the idea of an all-powerful mandate that gives the president the right to unlimited power. Checks and balances exist for a reason, and we all have the right to be part of the political process, not only as passive observers but as active participants.

Think Further

  1. How far do you think the presidential mandate should extend? In other words, how much power should the president receive from their election?
  2. Do congressional members have a mandate? What happens when a legislator’s mandate clashes with the presidential mandate? 
  3. Should a president be considered to have a mandate when they win by a small margin? What if they win the election but lose the popular vote?

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  1. Azari, Julia R. Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate. Cornell University Press, 2014. 
  2. Dahl, Robert A. “Myth of the Presidential Mandate.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 105, no. 3, 1990, pp. 355-372. 
  3. “Mandate: The President and the People.” YouTube, uploaded by AnnenbergClassroom.org, 13 Sept 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5mfZIi0cpM.