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Delivering the People's MessageThe Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate$

Julia R. Azari

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780801452246

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801452246.001.0001

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What an Election Is All About

What an Election Is All About

Reagan, Bush, Obama, and the Age of Mandates

(p.135) Chapter 5 What an Election Is All About
Delivering the People's Message

Julia R. Azari

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the partisan era mandate rhetoric, examining the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Mandate rhetoric in this period is characterized by a different approach to party and ideology. Compared with presidents of the modern era, partisan era presidents have been less likely to refer to party platforms. However, their mandate rhetoric has been more likely to invoke partisanship and ideology in other ways: references to a specific policy associated with a distinct ideological viewpoint, as in Bush's 2005 mandate claims for privatizing Social Security; unfavorable comparisons with the previous administration, as in Reagan's mandate claims invoking economic change, Bill Clinton's references to change, and Obama's insistence that the electorate had “rejected” Republican ideas; and outright arguments that policy positions had been the reasons behind their election victories.

Keywords:   partisan era, mandate rhetoric, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, partisanship

Writing in Time magazine after Obama’s 2008 victory, Michael Grunwald posed and answered the ubiquitous postelection question: What did the result mean? He predicted, “When historians remember the 2008 election, they’re going to remember that the two-term Republican president had 20 percent approval ratings, that the economy was in meltdown, and that Americans didn’t want another Republican president. They’ll also remember that Obama was a change candidate in a change election.”1 These comments, despite references to the specific conditions of the 2008 election, exemplify the mandate politics that characterized the partisan era. Grunwald’s assessment emphasized party; although Bush could not appear on the 2008 ticket, the shortcomings of his administration contributed to the Republican candidate’s defeat. Furthermore, in a move typical of the partisan era, Grunwald characterized Obama’s victory as an endorsement of change.

Although the idea of a “mandate for change” may sound like a trope so generic it is nearly devoid of political meaning, statements like Grunwald’s actually describe a specific approach to governing. In this version of mandate (p.136) logic, a “change” candidate is obligated to deliver on a new and different set of policy promises. These premises underlie the idea of “responsible party government,” yet they remain difficult to realize in the American context. Policies prove difficult to change, as Obama learned in his attempts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The policy process remains replete with veto points, from the increasingly obstructive Senate to the entrenched bureaucracies of the federal administrative state. Yet, as these factors have become increasingly prominent in American politics, the responsible-party narrative of mandates for policy change has become ever more prevalent.

Parties and the Presidency in the Age of Mandate Politics

In the partisan era, presidential politics has been characterized by per sis tent, sometimes dramatic, challenges to legitimacy. These challenges are often connected to the depth of party polarization. Confrontations over legitimacy have varied in focus and in severity; they have included near-constant scandal accusations during the Clinton presidency (which culminated in impeachment proceedings), the depiction of George W. Bush as both an unqualified buffoon and a war criminal, and the questions about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and possible foreign connections. These challenges have at times diminished the political status of their targets, making it more difficult for them to accomplish signature domestic agenda items or to define the meaning of their political achievements.2 Clinton’s first term was marked early on by failures in economic policy and in health care reform;3 the second term was disrupted by the impeachment. Bush’s second term, even with a Republican Congress, featured a number of high profile legislative defeats, including proposed reforms to Social Security and immigration. Obama’s first term produced a number of major policy changes, but the protracted debate over health care reform revealed cracks in the foundation of Democratic unity, and backlash against the legislation left the administration politically weakened going into the 2010 midterms.4 Presidential stumbles on key policies have in turn contributed to a sense of unfulfilled promises and expectations, further damaging presidential legitimacy.

This phenomenon was not unique to the Obama presidency; the pattern of party victory, thwarted party ambition, and backlash in the next election (p.137) has recurred throughout the partisan era. Party control of Congress changed five times during the fifty-year period between 1928 and 1978.5 In the thirty years between 1980 and 2010, Congress has undergone four partial party changes and two complete ones. The conservative victory of 1980 included a Republican takeover of the Senate, which lasted until the 1986 midterm. In 1994, Republicans, promising to counter Bill Clinton’s agenda with their own Contract with America, won control of both the House and the Senate. Despite midterm losses in 1998, Republicans held onto power until the 2000 election left the Senate deadlocked. The defection of Republican James Jeffords in the summer of 2001 left the Democrats in control of the chamber until the 2002 midterms brought Republicans back to the majority. The 2004 election strengthened their numbers. Yet, after it seemed that Republicans had established a “permanent majority,” Democrats roared back in 2006. Congressional Democrats picked up additional seats in 2008, only to suffer record losses in the 2010 midterms. Since 1994, in sum, American politics has experienced a dynamic in which parties win nationally in congressional and presidential elections, repudiating their opponents, only to be on the other side of the equation a few election cycles later.

The 2010 election campaign echoed the national party themes of the 1994 contests and took opposition politics a step further. Tea Party rallies featured signs declaring intent to “take our country back.”6 Candidates decried Obama as a socialist, and conservative pundits questioned his legal right to serve as president. The response to the Obama presidency represents the convergence of two phenomena that we saw during the transition period under Nixon and Carter: declining institutional status and the emergence of issues that would eventually polarize the two parties. During the 1960s and 1970s, polarization and institutional decline were distinct, separate issues. In the partisan era, they are difficult to disentangle. The emergence of “new media” and the twenty-four-hour news cycle has facilitated this convergence. New forms of media have allowed the president’s detractors to transmit a continuous stream of messages reinforcing negative perspectives, from Keith Olbermann’s facetious “countdown” of days since George W. Bush had declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq to the perpetuation of the “birther” movement.7 In a study of new and traditional media, Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey Berry found considerable evidence of what they term “outrage”—mockery, name-calling and insults, and misrepresentation—in contemporary political discourse. Compared to more traditional forms of (p.138) media, newer forms such as blogs, talk radio, and cable news more often carried commentary that challenged the legitimacy of the president and other political actors by questioning their intelligence and loyalty and painting their issue positions as extreme.8 Furthermore, the “narrow-casting” phenomenon allowed by these new media forms meant that citizens could consume news without confronting opposing political perspectives. As Matthew Baum and Tim Groeling observe, “the increased reliance of many politically attentive Americans on partisan sites such as Daily Kos and Free Republic could potentially pose a significant challenge to American democracy.”9 Evidence suggests that the changing media environment is reflected in changing institutional norms and practices as well. Presidential leadership and public appeals strategies appear to have changed along with changes in media structure; in Jeffrey Cohen’s words, “In place of building public support through appealing to the broad mass public, the president engages in a more selective approach, targeting specific groups … Usually presidents target friends, ginning up their enthusiasm for the president. Presidential opponents counter with appeals to opposition groups.”10 Faced with these political incentives and obstacles, presidents have invoked the election and the campaign more often than at any other juncture in the post-Progressive presidency. These campaign references, as we shall see, serve as a means for presidents to appeal to supporters. This rhetoric also allows them highlight the transparency and accountability of their leadership. Campaign references convey that the president’s plans have been communicated to the public and therefore successfully placed before the electorate for approval.

Mandate rhetoric in this period is also characterized by a different approach to party and ideology. Compared with presidents of the modern era, partisan era presidents have been less likely to refer to party platforms. However, their mandate rhetoric has been more likely to invoke partisanship and ideology in other ways: references to a specific policy associated with a distinct ideological viewpoint, as in George W. Bush’s 2005 mandate claims for privatizing Social Security; unfavorable comparisons with the previous administration, as in Reagan’s mandate claims invoking economic change, Bill Clinton’s references to change, and Barack Obama’s insistence that the electorate had “rejected” Republican ideas; and outright arguments that policy positions had been the reasons behind their election victories. Combined with changes in venue and context, as described in Chapter 1, mandate (p.139) rhetoric in this later period appears to be aimed at supporters rather than at a broader audience.

Finally, the theme of responsibility pervades partisan era mandate rhetoric. In this context, the theme of responsibility is distinct from “responsible-party” notions of governance; rather, presidents argued that they had been elected to take responsibility for problems and not to “pass them on to the next generation.” Clinton, Bush, and Obama all used this logic in explaining their policy choices. This language offers a new approach to the trusteeship model of representation, identifying the ability to tackle difficult problems as a key part of presidential leadership and yet suggesting that the justification for this leadership still derives from the will of the people.

These three changes illustrate the way in which presidents have used mandate rhetoric as a response to changes in the institutional environment. The emphasis placed on responsibility, transparency, and accountability suggests a new, more challenging presidential politics. Mandate claims have, as we have seen, been used as a defense mechanism and a response to legitimacy challenges throughout the history of the American republic. In the media and party environment of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and in the wake of lasting damage to the idea of executive power, responding to such challenges has become a routine feature of presidential communication.

Three Party Victories

The three cases chosen to illustrate mandate rhetoric in the partisan era are Reagan after the 1980 election, George W. Bush after the 2004 election, and Obama after the 2008 election. These cases were selected in part for their comparability with the earlier presidential terms included in the analysis. As with the earlier cases, different categories in Skowronek’s political time are represented; Reagan, like FDR, is a reconstructive leader; Bush, like Johnson, is an articulation president; and Obama, like Eisenhower, is a preemptive president.11 Political time is not the only basis for comparison. The elections of 1980, 2004, and 2008 all produced some approximation of party victory, facilitating comparison with the earlier elections. Each of these contests—as with 1932, 1936, 1952, and 1964—ended with a majority victory (p.140) for the president and significant congressional gains for the president’s party. The later presidents placed greater emphasis on the mandate and defined it differently than their earlier counterparts. Where FDR, Eisenhower, and Johnson appeared to struggle with and vacillate over the question of party and nation, these presidents interpreted their elections in partisan terms.

Both the governing philosophies espoused and the political contexts faced by this later group illustrate the divergence from their modern era counterparts. For Reagan and Bush, the importance of conservatism as a driving force behind their leadership choices was apparent in their rhetoric, many of their policy actions, and also in the public’s reaction to them. For Obama, this situation was more complicated. Promises of transformational and cross-partisan leadership were soon met with highly organized and vocal opposition from Republicans in Congress and in the public. Obama’s approach to the presidency and to mandate claiming was less ideological than that of Reagan or of Bush, reflecting his well-documented pragmatic sensibilities.12 Yet his leadership and language have been unmistakably rooted in partisan considerations, as we shall see in his interpretations of the 2008 election.

This distinction, driven by both political conditions and individual leadership choices, is born out in comparisons between the mandate claims of presidents serving at comparable points in political time. Reagan and FDR both promised to return the nation to its fundamental principles, but Reagan made a more explicit case for defining those values in partisan and ideological terms. The rhetorical choices facing Eisenhower and Obama illustrate change over time even more starkly: both could partially attribute their political success to their promises of a middle way. Once in office, they had to reconcile these promises with the imperatives of governing, balancing earlier high-minded bipartisanship with their decidedly partisan policy positions. Eisenhower chose to construct a mandate narrative and, in fact, a political identity around the idea of being “president of all the people.” Obama, as we shall see, quickly abandoned the transcendent narrative in favor of one that reflected his polarized circumstances.

We have much less analytical distance from the Bush and Obama presidencies than from those of FDR, Eisenhower, and Johnson. Indeed, at the time of this writing, Obama’s second term is ongoing. As a result, assessing (p.141) these cases requires some caution, particularly without the archival sources available for earlier presidents. Yet, even at this early stage of understanding the Bush and Obama presidencies, the difference between their approach to electoral logic and that of their predecessors is apparent.

Reagan’s Conservative Mandate

Initially, it seemed that Reagan might restore some of the status that had bled away from the presidency during the transitional period. Following what was widely perceived as a display of weakness on Carter’s part during the Iranian hostage crisis, Reagan crafted an image of strength.13 In his 1980 campaign, the California Republican stressed big ideas over policy details, melding a message of change with appeals to social and cultural conservatism.14 While Carter talked about good government, Reagan promoted images of the nation’s fortitude. As historian Sean Wilentz observes, “Reagan’s experiences as a self-made and remade man formed the core of an American myth that became part of the substance as well as the style of his politics.”15 The 1980 campaign incorporated Reagan’s story and persona into his promises for ideological and policy change.

Reagan’s conservative candidacy benefited from the new nomination system. Compared to the traditional convention system, primaries tend to favor candidates who can energize audiences and deliver memorable lines. In 1976 and 1980, the new system also brought advantage to candidates whose political experience had taken place outside of national government. In this regard, Reagan’s background as a governor allowed him to portray himself as an independent-thinking “outsider,” as Carter had in 1976. Gerald Pomper et al. describe the new nominating system:

A political party interested only in winning the Presidency might have given Ford more consideration [as a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1980]. The nature of the new nominating system, however, precluded this consideration. Opportunities to enter state primaries were ending rapidly, but most delegates would be selected in these primaries. While Reagan had an organization working throughout the nation, Ford had no campaign staff in the field. There were no “party bosses” to control delegations and no feasible means to delay a decision until the convention met.16

(p.142) These circumstances also benefited the emergent conservative wing of the party, whose influence was not limited to presidential nominations. In the 1980 Republican platform, the party’s long-standing support for the Equal Rights Amendment was reversed, with the new plank clarifying distaste for government involvement in society and endorsing the “traditional role” of the family.17 In the general election campaign, Reagan reached out to religious conservatives and also used conservative messages to appeal to blue-collar and white ethnic voters.18

More broadly, these changes were part of a shifting political landscape in which ideology and party became more closely aligned. Reagan claimed a conservative mandate, not necessarily a Republican one. By the time of the Bush and Obama presidencies, this distinction was largely irrelevant, making mandates easier to justify and claim. For Reagan, the coalition and the claims were predominantly about ideology rather than party, a distinction we see reflected in his public rhetoric about a mandate for policy and in the comments made within the White House about the conservative mandate.

The election result appeared custom-made to frustrate mandate theorists. Reagan won just over 50 percent of the popular vote, but took more than 90 percent of the Electoral College vote share. Republicans won control of the Senate and gained 33 seats in the House of Representatives, although they fell short of winning control of that chamber.19 The political science literature reflects this equivalence over whether the 1980 election constituted a legitimate conservative mandate. Conley identifies 1980 as one of three “popular mandates,” along with 1952 and 1964, and suggests that the campaign and result allowed Reagan to pursue a conservative economic agenda in particular (alongside social and foreign policy agendas). Lawrence Grossback, David Peterson, and James Stimson similarly classify 1980 as a mandate election, along with 1964 and 1994, arguing that the unexpected magnitude of victory for Reagan as well as other Republican candidates allowed for an unusually productive—and conservative—legislative session.20 Examining similar evidence, Charles O. Jones comes to a somewhat different conclusion. He notes that the message from voters in the 1980 contest was unclear, and that the news commentary following the election was “somewhat muted” and reflected a general sense that the victory was at least in part a result of dissatisfaction with Carter rather than preference for a conservative agenda. The idea of the 1980 election as a mandate for Reagan’s agenda also inspired Robert Dahl’s critique of the entire concept. (p.143) Dahl notes that although Reagan won less than 51 percent of votes cast, the Reagan administration broadly touted their victory as a mandate authorizing the president to exert his preferences over those of Congress.

News media were generally optimistic about the possibilities for interpreting the election in policy terms. An op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal argued that Reagan had a mandate for change and explored several possibilities for policy change: strengthening foreign policy, tax cuts, and redefining the national agenda.21 Similarly, other pieces analyzed the election in terms of a public “endorsement” of both economic and defense agendas.22 Still others, however, rejected the idea of a clear policy mandate. An article in the New York Times on November 9, 1980, presents a New York Times/CBS News Poll suggesting that Reagan voters were likely “motivated more by dissatisfaction with President Carter than any serious ideological commitment to the Republican’s views.” The opposite view was presented by one of Reagan’s pollsters, Richard B. Wirthlin, who argued that two-thirds of Reagan’s vote share was pro-Reagan rather than anti-Carter.23 Nevertheless, Wirthlin stopped short of calling the election a “mandate” for policies derived from Reagan’s ideological orientation, maintaining instead that it gave a “sanction” from the voters to some of Reagan’s basic ideas. Tom Wicker’s analysis cited polling data that revealed no change in the electorate’s demand for government-provided public services; instead he cited foreign policy as a reason for the Republican victory. Even this interpretation did not depict the election as a policy mandate, however; the difference between the two candidates was a “matter of credibility rather than policy, since Mr. Carter made the same promise.”24

Despite mixed reactions to the 1980 election, Reagan forged ahead with his own narrative about the conservative mandate. As Reagan constructed a “mandate for change,” his electoral logic rhetoric echoed ideas from Nixon and Carter: both had routinely emphasized their campaign promises and, in the case of Nixon after the 1972 election, the mandate as a justification for strong executive power. In his efforts to jettison the baggage of the 1970s and recreate the image of the presidency, Reagan drew on arguments about the presidency that had resurged during that very period. Reagan also affirmed his commitment to the Republican platform in a way that harkened back to Progressive Era rhetoric. At his first press conference after the election, he stated, “I ran on that platform; the people voted for me on that platform; I do believe in that platform, and I think it would be very cynical (p.144) and callous of me to suggest that I’m going to turn away from it.”25 This logic combined two ideas that set mandate rhetoric in the partisan era apart from that of the modern period: the depiction of the president as delegate rather than trustee and the unambiguous embrace of the president’s partisan role. The use of party and ideology reflects sorting and polarization, whereas delegate language draws on a more complex dynamic. Reagan stressed a strong approach to the presidency, especially in foreign policy, yet his use of mandate language softened this stance by stressing his commitment to the electorate.

Between his inauguration in 1981 and the end of March of the same year, Reagan gave one televised national address, eight ceremonial speeches (including the inaugural address), and ten news conferences. In addition to these speeches, he sent ten messages to Congress, addressed the executive branch six times, and spoke to the National League of Cities, the National Governors Association, and a group of state legislators and county executives (twenty-two government communications in all). He also made twenty-four minor addresses and statements, and addressed Republican leaders on three occasions, including the Conservative Political Action Conference. Approximately 10.2 percent of these communications included a reference to the election or campaign of 1980. Most of these statements interpreted the election as a mandate for economic issues. In keeping with the conservative vision of smaller government, Reagan ordered a federal hiring freeze on January 22, asked all noncareer civil service employees to resign, and announced changes in travel and other similar expenditures. He justified changes in federal spending by stating in his remarks about the cuts, “And as with every other economic action we take, it’s essential that we follow through on our commitments. Thus, I view the implementation of these orders as critical. The American people are determined, I believe, to have actions on the economic problems that we face. They’re going to find out that we’re listening to them. We’re equally determined to see through every essential step that is needed to restore our economy.”26 Similarly, in the actual memorandum announcing the cuts, Reagan suggested that the new plan would “help redeem our pledge to the American people of a government that lives within its means.”27

An instructive comparison can be made between Reagan and FDR. Sometimes compared because of their paradigm-shifting presidencies, Roosevelt and Reagan used electoral logic very differently in their communications. (p.145) During the first seventy days that FDR was in office, his only reference to the 1932 election was a broad claim about “direct action” in the Inaugural Address. For Reagan, electoral logic played a much more prominent role. In chapter two, we examined the relationships among changes in the party system, changes in the presidency, and Roosevelt’s interpretations of the 1932 election. The first major distinction was in the status of the office. In the decades preceding Roosevelt’s election, the informal role of the presidency had grown. Furthermore, the immediacy and severity of the Great Depression gave Roosevelt the status of a “crisis leader,” boosting his authority. In 1981, conditions were quite different. Although economic issues were important in the 1980 election, the problems did not compare to the building unrest of the early 1930s; calls for martial law were absent in the 1980 context and, once in office, Reagan’s new position did not require drastic action on the level of the 1933 bank holiday. Furthermore, the presidency had experienced a series of high-profile humiliations: Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection in 1968, Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and Carter’s inability to successfully reposition in the presidency or, ultimately, to win reelection. Reagan’s response involved two somewhat contradictory approaches. The conservative message of shrinking government drew on public skepticism about its role and capacity.28 Yet his narrative was also one of reassurance about the accountability and responsiveness of a new governing coalition guided by the demands of the people.29

As Roosevelt’s mandate rhetoric reflected the politics of the transition from the Progressive to the modern presidency, Reagan’s mandate rhetoric revealed an institution beginning to settle into a new partisan era. Despite his investment in national mythology, Reagan’s vision of the office—unlike that of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, or Johnson—was not predicated on the idea of transcending politics. His policy message unified disparate strains of the conservative movement, espousing social and economic conservatism, and anticommunism.30 Reagan’s more ideological approach was matched by a more divided electorate. The gap between Reagan’s average approval among Democrats and Republicans in the 1981 was 45 points, the largest recorded first-year “approval gap” for any president up to that point.31

The impact of changing party politics was evident beyond public opinion. By the time Reagan won the 1980 election, the conservative movement had been building for several decades. The Reagan presidency offered the first real chance for this movement to influence policy through the executive (p.146) branch. For example, as David Yalof has noted, the Reagan White House explicitly applied ideological criteria in judicial appointments when evaluating possible Supreme Court nominees.32 It also shaped the Reagan White House and management of the bureaucracy. Changes to the structure of the executive branch forced bureaucrats to be more responsive to presidential directives.33 Executive branch management, which never lived up to the ideal of “neutral competence,” became even more politicized as Reagan sought to reshape policy.34 In other words, the Reagan presidency represented a shift in the relationship between presidents and parties, and also came at a time when the influence of the conservative movement was becoming more apparent within the Republican Party.

Reagan responded to political conditions by promoting the 1980 election specifically as a mandate for conservative economic ideas. About a week after the bud get announcements, Reagan refined the mandate narrative somewhat, stating in the opening remarks of a press conference that “the clear message I received in the election campaign is that we must gain control of this inflationary monster.”35 Reagan returned to bud get politics in a message to Congress on March 10, 1981. In a message describing cuts to the 1982 bud get, Reagan offered dramatic rhetoric: “But today’s status quo is nothing more than economic stagnation coupled with high inflation. Dramatic change is needed or the situation will simply get worse, resulting in even more suffering and misery, and possibly the destruction of traditional American values.” The argument for bud get changes did not end there. Reagan also connected the bud get to his vision of the 1980 mandate, contending “when considering the economic recovery package, I urge the Members of Congress to remember that last November the American people’s message was loud and clear. The mandate for change, expressed by the American people, was not my mandate; it was our mandate. Together we must remember that our primary responsibility is to the Nation as a whole and that there is nothing more important than putting America’s economic house in order.”36

White House staff also invoked the mandate when challenged in less public forms of communication. Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-CO) wrote a letter urging the administration to call for a deferral of the pay raise scheduled for members of Congress and top federal executives. White House aide Max Friedersdorf’s reply, which was in agreement with Schroeder’s suggestion, emphasizes that the President’s intended course of action (p.147) was “consistent with the mandate he received in last November’s election.”37 In an exchange between Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger and Patsy Mink of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the 1980 mandate was also invoked. A letter from Mink, representing the views of the ADA, raises reservations about Reagan’s proposed spending cuts and acknowledges an electoral mandate to improve economic conditions while calling into question the methods the administration plans to employ. Nofziger’s response dismisses the previous interpretation of the election with a reminder that “as you must recognize, many of the proposals that you criticize in your letter are precisely the measures that President Reagan used as the basis for his campaign last November.”38 This argument sounds much like the “responsible-party” model of government. At the same time, it further underscores the defensive character of mandate claims. When confronted with views of the other side, the Reagan White House reminded opponents that the conservative policy platform had been the winning one in the election.

Reagan’s approach to electoral logic in 1981 reflected the crosscurrent of developments in the party system and the presidency at that time. As such, he drew heavily on the idea of an electoral mandate in order to justify governing choices. Historian Gil Troy has observed that the Reagan mandate, although artificially “manufactured” by his communications team, “was central to the Reaganites’ success.”39 But, as we have seen, the mandate is not a fixed concept. Reagan and his staffers took care to construct a particular kind of mandate that addressed the presidency at the time. The focus on a single-issue area, the economy, lent coherence to the narrative.40 References to the transparency and responsiveness to the will of the people can be understood as a response to the decline in institutional prestige following Watergate and Vietnam. The emphasis on conservative themes reflects the infusion of ideology into party politics and the transformation of presidential politics into a more prime-ministerial approach. Like Nixon’s idea of the “silent majority” in 1969, the Reagan White House offered a narrative of a mandate that reflected the needs and preferences of a specific group within the electorate: those who had voted for them. Presidents have never been able to avoid what George Washington famously denounced as “partisan entanglements”—even Washington found himself taking Alexander Hamilton’s side on major policy disagreements with Madison and Jefferson.41 But transcending partisanship was at least an aspiration for modern presidents such as Eisenhower and Johnson, an impulse with pragmatic (p.148) motivations and philosophical implications. As parties become more internally homogenous, and the fault lines dividing the two parties became more pronounced, the notion of the “president above politics” has proven even more elusive. In constructing the mandate of 1980, the Reagan White House appears to have given the nonpartisan ideal little thought. As a short-term strategy, this generally yielded good results. As a point in the development of the presidency, Reagan’s claims to a 1980 conservative mandate anticipated the later function of mandate rhetoric: affirming and reinforcing polarized political discourse. Reagan’s choices also reinforced a delegate definition of the mandate, presenting the president as a follower rather than a leader and as a representative of a specific segment of the public.

Through political skill and strategy, Reagan avoided the pitfalls of being seen as a follower. Strong rhetoric about defense and national security helped him maintain the appearance of strength and leadership. The Reagan White House skillfully used what Bruce Miroff calls “spectacle” in order to project an image of “potency.”42 This approach required mastery of imagery and rhetoric in order to be successful, but the political context created scope conditions. The current of individualized, candidate-centered politics that swept through politics in the early 1980s allowed Reagan to cite the people’s will as the main impetus for his decisions, yet still appear to be a strong, decisive leader.

Bush Plays to the Base

By 2004, George W. Bush’s self-description as a “compassionate conservative” had deteriorated from bumper sticker slogan to punch line. Political scientist Gary Jacobson proclaimed Bush a “divider, not a uniter,” inverting another 2000 campaign slogan.43 By June 2004, the president’s approval ratings were strongly polarized—nearly 90 percent among Republicans and as low as 12 percent among Democrats.44 The emergent cable news media contributed to this political environment as well. Keith Olbermann, who would later call Bush a “murderous fascist” on his MSNBC show, reported on election “irregularities” after the 2004 contest had concluded, prompting criticism from his counterparts on the right.45

Early interpretations of the 2004 election in the traditional news media also demonstrated Bush’s polarizing impact. For example, conservative columnist (p.149) Charles Krauthammer developed an extensive definition of the presidential mandate that took into account the number of popular votes by which Bush won reelection, suggesting that the 3.5 million vote margin was a “serious majority” (conflating “margin of victory” and “majority”).46 Skepticism about the magnitude of the election victory to clear a mandate threshold came from Krauthammer’s liberal colleague E. J. Dionne, who maintained that, “A 51–48 percent victory is not a mandate.”47 Doubts came from conservatives as well. In a piece urging the Bush administration not to confuse a rejection of the Kerry campaign with a mandate for conservative policies, former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger asserted, “The president and his people are deluding themselves if they think his victory signified general approval of his record.”48 The Christian Science Monitor published an analysis that pointed out the growing divisions within the party over social issues that accompanied conservative victories on same-sex marriage ballot initiatives in 2004.49

As they contemplated the meaning of the election outcome, journalists also questioned whether Bush would stress the issue priorities of conservatives or reach beyond the party base. On November 4, 2004, the New York Times contributed to this interpretation and assessed the importance of social issues on the election result by suggesting that the president’s supporters “anticipated a revolution.”50 In another article, New York Times writer Todd S. Purdum posed the question, “So what next? If even a one-vote margin is a mandate, as John F. Kennedy once said, what might a real mandate look like for Mr. Bush? Will he pursue his course undaunted, what ever the opposition may do? Or once again seek, as he promised four years ago, to ‘change the tone’ in Washington, and reach out to the one-quarter of voters in the electorate who described themselves as angry at his administration?”51 In debating over the meaning of the 2004 election, journalists presented their audiences with the classic presidential dilemma: Would—and should—the newly reelected Bush administration take the “responsible-party” direction, or would the second term turn toward a more national and inclusive vision?

These remarks also highlight the general lack of consensus about the meaning of the term “presidential mandate” in 2004. In a country deeply divided, what did it mean for the Republican Party to win the presidency and gain seats in both houses of Congress? The concept of responsible-party government has never been entirely compatible with the American (p.150) system of separated powers. But after the election of 2004, it seemed that many of the elements were in place. The distinct positions of the two parties were readily evident. The campaign had brought out differences on economic issues, entitlement reform, social issues, and foreign policy. On domestic policy, Bush and the Republicans offered further tax cuts, a plan to privatize Social Security, and opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.52 In the highly salient debate over foreign policy, they promised to stay the course in Iraq, while Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry denounced the administration’s actions. After both sides made their positions clear, one side won.

The margin of victory was slim, however. If an important characteristic of a mandate election is an extraordinary result, then 2004 fell short. Compared with historic landslide elections such as 1932 and 1964, the Bush victory appeared quite modest. In other words, like many elections, the 2004 results were ambiguous. The raw facts revealed by the voting returns appear not to have shaped Bush’s response to the election. Instead, Bush’s construction of the 2004 mandate reflects the polarized state of the party system and the need to establish and bolster the legitimacy of the Bush presidency.

Bush emphasized the election and the campaign far more than either Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, despite winning a much more modest victory. More than 28 percent of presidential communications in the spring of 2005 included mandate rhetoric. After the election, Bush had declared that his “political capital” would be applied to a variety of problems, including the terrorism and foreign policy issues that had dominated much of the policy agenda since 2001.53 But in 2005, the newly reelected president constructed the mandate narrative almost exclusively around the issue of Social Security reform. Bush’s mandate rhetoric also emphasized the fulfillment of campaign promises, as in an address at a Republican National Committee Dinner on March 15. Explaining the intent to continue to cut taxes, the president remarked, “In the 2004 elections, we ran on large issues. We campaigned on a platform of big ideas. We discussed those ideas at every campaign stop, and the American people responded. And now it is our turn to respond and do what they expect.”54 Alongside rhetoric about decisiveness and presidential power, Bush offered delegate-style claims about campaign promises.

As the signature domestic issue, Social Security must have seemed like a natural choice for mandate rhetoric. Journalist Robert Draper explains that (p.151) Bush had “littered the campaign trail with references to Social Security private accounts” and thus believed that since he had been reelected in 2004, this position must have been the reason—despite evidence to the contrary. Draper notes, “No one in the White House reminded him that the election had been framed as a Choice, Not a Referendum, the Steady Leadership versus the Flip-flopping Windsurfer.”55 Fiona Ross calls Bush’s effort to persuade voters and legislators on the Social Security issue “a spectacularly unsuccessful investment of political capital” and cites “the naïve faith that the administration placed in the power of communications, and even particular phrases such as ‘choice’ and ‘ownership’ to change public opinion” as part of the problem.56 Nevertheless, framing the issue in terms of the putative party mandate followed established political tactics. In the 2004 race, the campaign had focused heavily on mobilizing the conservative base.57 Campaign strategy quickly became governing logic. Lou Cannon and Carl Cannon describe how “Bush and [Karl] Rove worked overtime to keep the base mollified.”58 Social Security reform fit into the strategy of base politics, with much higher favorability ratings among Republicans than Democrats. A Gallup Poll in December 2004 found that almost 70 percent of Republican respondents favored the president’s proposed reforms, while only 26 percent of Democrats favored them.59

The challenge of transforming these numbers into a working coalition in Congress did not deter the administration from constructing the 2004 mandate almost exclusively around the issue of Social Security. Bush toured the nation to promote his plan, stopping in a number of states where he won in 2004—Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Iowa, Indiana, New Mexico, and North Carolina—as well as a handful in which he lost, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Mary land. The mandate rhetoric in these speeches emphasized that the president had run on the issue of Social Security reform. For example, in Tucson, giving an address on strengthening Social Security, Bush made this statement during the question-and-answer portion of the presentation:

Well, let me tell you my theory on this—not my theory; my view. [Applause] Thank you all, but here’s what I believe. I know the Senator believes this—I know Senators believe it; I know Members—these Members of the House believe it. Our job is not to pass problems on to future Presidents or future Congresses. That’s not why we ran for office. We ran for office, and we said (p.152) to the people, “When we see a problem, in good faith we will work together to solve it.” That’s what we said. This is a problem; now is the time for members of both political parties to work together to solve the problem so that a person like Jack [an audience member who had asked a question] says to Members of the Congress, both parties, “Job well done, you’ve done what we expected you to do.”60

In Notre Dame, Indiana, on March 4, 2005, Bush similarly argued, during the question-and-answer period:

The fundamental question facing our society and facing our Congress is, are we willing to worry about taxpayers that have yet to come close to retirement? That’s really what we’re talking about. I campaigned on this issue. I said, “Vote for me, and I’m going to bring forth interesting ideas to make the Social Security system sound.” I believe people appreciate a candid approach to issues and want people to work together to solve problems.61

Despite this effort to shore up support among the Republican base, the privatization plan never gained traction in Congress. Democrats as well as Republicans in marginal districts had little incentive to advocate for the reforms, which were unpopular with the electorate as a whole. Rove’s strategy had met its limits. Aside from its ineffectiveness in this instance, what does this story tell us about mandate rhetoric in the twenty-first century?

By claiming a mandate on the basis of a clear, distinct party platform and a slim majority (as Reagan had in 1980 and Bush had in 2004), Reagan and Bush may have served to reinforce divisions in the electorate rather than to reconcile them. In the first term, Bush had been involved in several important bipartisan initiatives: No Child Left Behind, on which he collaborated with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and Medicare reform that won support across party lines. However, in the second term, Bush’s overall message changed. By focusing his communications efforts on areas friendly to the administration and to conservative views, Bush underscored the idea that his presidency represented only a certain segment of the nation. Karl Rove’s “base” strategy for campaigning and governance was a defining feature of the Bush presidency.62 But at least where mandate rhetoric is concerned, this stategy seems to be part of a larger development in Republican presidential politics. Engaging the core support coalition also fit the political circumstances of the era. Surveyed a few days before the inauguration in (p.153) 2005, 91 percent of Republicans reported the expectation that Bush would be an above average or outstanding president, versus 4 percent who expected that he would be below average or poor. In contrast, 74 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of independents expected Bush to be a below average or poor president. Democrats and independents were also much less likely to report the expectation of greatness—22 and 44 percent, respectively.63 In this context, appealing to supporters may have seemed the safest strategy.

The main lesson from the Bush case appears to be that appealing to the party base did not produce political or policy success. During the first two years of Bush’s second term, his efforts to govern from the right were not successful, as we have seen in the case of Social Security reform. Neither were his efforts to move to the center with an immigration reform plan that attracted some Democrats but repelled the conservative wing of Bush’s own party.64 The experience of the Bush presidency following the 2004 elections exemplifies a powerful discrepancy between ideas about governing and the reality of policymaking. The responsible-party ideal shaped Bush’s thought and rhetoric after his reelection; ideological distance between the parties and the idea of appeasing the party’s base informed this approach. However, the responsible-party ideal came up against some of the most consequential realities of American government: the difficulty of changing policy and the broad coalitions required by the legislative process.

Politically, the 2006 midterms brought Democrats back to power in Congress, reducing the final years of Bush’s second term to a series of partisan struggles. The Democratic majorities passed laws calling for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, supporting stem-cell research, and expanding programs to provide health care to needy children. The president vetoed these measures. Although these measures did not appear to hurt his standing with Republicans, the support of the base was not enough to save his political status.65 Standing by the letter of conservative principles proved more difficult after the banking collapse in fall 2008. Bush backed government plans to “bail out” troubled financial institutions in order to forestall further problems. This decision inspired criticism from conservatives, including Republican presidential candidate John McCain.66 McCain missed his opportunity to experience the cross-pressures of presidential leadership, however. The 2008 election delivered a majority to the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama.

(p.154) Rejecting the Politics of the Past

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama addressed the nation for the first time as the president-elect, offering a plea and a promise: “Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long … And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn—I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.”67 Obama’s vows to “change the tone in Washington” date back to the speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that launched him onto the national stage. Confronting culture war stereotypes, Obama declared, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”68 Nevertheless, during the 2008 campaign—first during the primaries and then in the general election—Obama emphasized the differences between his positions and those of the incumbent Republican administration. Throughout the campaign, he cited his consistent record of opposition to the war in Iraq and promised to end American military involvement.69 The Obama campaign also differentiated itself from the Bush administration on domestic issues, especially the economy. Whereas the 2004 election had focused on the party base,70 the Obama campaign (in coordination with the Democratic National Committee, chaired by 2004 presidential hopeful Howard Dean) employed a “fifty-state strategy.”71 By reaching beyond the typical “blue” pockets along the coasts and in the upper Midwest, the campaign comfortably cleared the threshold for Electoral College victory by winning in states such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana. This gave the appearance of a new, broad coalition—even though the Obama campaign drew substantial support from traditional Democratic groups, such as African Americans and lower-income voters.72

The success of the fifty-state strategy, along with promises to find common ground between Republicans and Democrats, created expectations of a “postpartisan” presidency. At the same time, Obama’s pledges for policy change signaled intent to repudiate Republican ideas, not accommodate them. In this way, Obama set himself up for a difficult time constructing a single, coherent narrative for the interpretation of the 2008 election. But the problem was not entirely attributable to Obama’s previous rhetoric. A (p.155) polarized polity meant that Republican opposition to Obama was strong and unified. His favorability ratings with Republicans never reached above 41 percent during the first year; by the end of 2009, they were below 20 percent.73

As in 2004, media interpretations of the election were mixed. The San Francisco Chronicle featured several articles that took on the debate about the partisan implications of the election contest and result. One article quotes Senate majority leader Harry Reid insisting that, “it is not a mandate for any political party or any ideology, but a mandate to get over those things that divide us and focus on getting things done,”74 whereas another casts the election as a clear choice between the competing legacies of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.75 Echoing Reid’s sentiment about the meaning of the election, an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times argued that the president was charged with the responsibility of reuniting the country. The same piece maintained that he “must repair the United States’ international relations and renew our ties to the multilateral organizations that President Bush neglected. He must repair the damage inflicted by the so-called war on terror, which has alienated the United States from many friends. Closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be a welcome and symbolic start.”76 Forbes magazine took the position that the election result signaled “the electorate’s deep desire for change.” In the context of his own mixed campaign messages and an unevenly polarized political environment, Obama tended toward a partisan interpretation of the election. This position was not unreasonable; Democrats had shown even more strength in the 2008 contest than Republicans had in 2004. However, in contrast with Reagan and Bush, Obama did not create a unified narrative about the party’s values and the message of the election. Between January 20 and March 31, he linked the election to three main policy areas: good government, the rejection of Republican economic ideas, and changes in the conduct of the war on terrorism.

Obama’s high approval ratings in early 2009 belied the complicated politics of his presidency. The new president’s struggles to establish legitimacy were in some ways typical of the politics of the era. Efforts to bring House Republicans on board with the economic stimulus bill were unsuccessful, portending other highly partisan votes and negotiations;77 congressional polarization had emerged long before Obama took office.78 This development affected the presidencies of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and (p.156) George W. Bush, hindering their ability to work across the aisle and increasing their reliance on their own partisans in Congress.79

Yet Obama’s particular situation also brought on unique legitimacy challenges. Bert Rockman notes that although Senate norms about filibusters and “holds”—rules designed to empower the minority party—had changed well before Obama took office, the Republican opposition took their use to a new level during the first term of the Obama presidency.80 From the 2009 stimulus bill to the Patient Protection Act to the debt negotiations of 2011, Obama contended with a particularly focused—if not always necessarily unified—opposition party. The political objectives of this strategy were brought into stark relief with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s famous statement that his primary legislative objective was “for President Obama to be a one-term president.”81

In addition to legislative opposition, Obama’s presidency also became the target of a growing and active new media effort. As with congressional opposition, the difference between Bush and Obama constituted one of degree more than kind. The proliferation of blogs and other new media sources allowed for Obama’s critics—as well as his supporters—to add their ideas to the media narrative and to shape the discourse. A dedicated and vocal opposition had begun to form even before Obama’s inauguration. For example, Fox News host Glenn Beck told audiences on January 12 that “I do believe Obama is a socialist. He may be a full-fledged Marxist. He has surrounded himself by Marxists his whole life.”82 A few days before the inauguration ceremony, radio personality Rush Limbaugh famously announced, “I hope he fails,” in response to a putative request of a statement on his “hopes” for the Obama presidency.83 Conservative blogs also took aim at the president and his supporters; for example, the blog Wonkette referred to supporters as “Obamatards.”84 It remains to be seen whether these patterns of media incivility and legitimacy challenges will persist beyond the Obama presidency; as Obama’s second term unfolds, there exists scant evidence of their abatement.

In the early months of 2009, Obama’s use of mandate rhetoric reflected the need to establish legitimacy and to deflect criticism. In major addresses, statements, and news conferences, we observe Obama using the logic of campaign promises and telling audiences that he was, in essence, doing what he was elected to do. These claims interpreted the 2008 election in expansive, yet specific, policy terms. The president not only cited his campaign as a means of justifying his agenda and anticipating and responding to criticism (p.157) but also used mandate language to criticize political opponents by suggesting that their ideas had been rejected by the people.

On January 21, Obama notified the White House senior staff that in addition to a salary freeze, he would also issue an executive order restricting the ability of White House staff to work as lobbyists after leaving their posts. The new president introduced these changes by citing campaign promises:

But the American people deserve more than simply an assurance that those who are coming to Washington will serve their interests. They also deserve to know that there are rules on the books to keep it that way. They deserve a Government that is truly of, by, and for the people. As I often said during the campaign, we need to make the White House the people’s house. And we need to close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into Government freely and lets them use their time in public service as a way to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people when they leave. So today we are taking a major step towards fulfilling this campaign promise. The Executive order on ethics I will sign shortly represents a clean break from business as usual.85

The connection between campaign promises and improving government ethics recall Carter’s promises to provide better, more honest practices in government. Obama also linked these ideas to the now-familiar theme of deficit reduction, stating at a Fiscal Responsibility Summit on February 23:

In the end, however, if we want to rebuild our economy and restore discipline and honesty to our bud get, we will need to change the way we do business here in Washington. We’re not going to be able to fall back into the same old habits and make the same inexcusable mistakes: the repeated failure to act as our economy spiraled deeper into crisis; the casual dishonesty of hiding irresponsible spending with clever accounting tricks; the costly overruns, the fraud and abuse, the endless excuses. This is exactly what the American people rejected when they went to the polls.

Three days later, in remarks on the federal bud get, Obama offered a similar sentiment:

Now, I know that this will not always sit well with the special interests and their lobbyists here in Washington, who think our bud get and tax system is (p.158) just fine as it is. No wonder; it works for them. I don’t think that we can continue on our current course. I work for the American people, and I’m determined to bring the change that the people voted for last November. And that means cutting what we don’t need to pay for what we do.

More than thirty years before Obama took office, Jimmy Carter demonstrated the risks involved in claiming a mandate for good government. Although touting improvements to the system has intuitive appeal, such claims can set an impossible standard for the administration.86 Entering its fourth year at the time of this writing, the Obama administration has thus far avoided any major scandals involving high-ranking Cabinet officials or White House staff. However, the watchdog organization PolitiFact has identified the rule against working for lobbyists as a “promise broken,” citing a provision in the order that allows former lobbyists to serve in the administration.87 Thus far, Obama’s criticism from the left has emphasized issues other than lobbyists and the power of special interests. However, with seven out of ten Americans reporting the belief that “lobbyists have too much power,”88 it seems possible that this issue may gain greater salience.

Obama’s mandate rhetoric about the economic situation and about foreign policy took the “change” idea even further. These messages differed from the populist and reform themes developed elsewhere, instead stressing partisanship and campaign promises, following a similar pattern to that of Reagan and Bush. Obama succinctly summarized this approach in a comment to then-House minority whip Eric Cantor, who criticized the president’s tax policy. The president responded, “I won.”89 As he presented economic plans to Congress and the public, Obama repeatedly framed the 2008 election as a rejection of Republican economic ideas. For example, on February 4, in remarks on the national economy, Obama interpreted the 2008 election in partisan policy terms:

I’ve heard criticisms that this plan is somehow wanting, and these criticisms echo the very same failed economic theories that led us into this crisis in the first place: the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can ignore fundamental challenges like energy independence and the high cost of health care; that we can somehow deal with this in a piecemeal fashion and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

I reject those theories, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change. So I urge Members (p.159) of Congress to act without delay. No plan is perfect, and we should work to make it stronger. No one is more committed to making it stronger than me. But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the essential. Let’s show people all over the country who are looking for leadership in this difficult time that we are equal to the task.90

Obama’s mandate rhetoric resembles Bush’s rhetoric about the 2004 election and Social Security in the sense that it invokes the campaign and presents the president as a responsible-party leader or a partisan delegate. An innovation all Obama’s own, however, is the depiction of the 2008 election as a negative event.91 Other elections have featured considerable negative advertising or been decided by negative evaluations of the incumbent. However, Obama appears to be the first to embrace negativity in his mandate rhetoric, referring to the 2008 election more than once as a “rejection” of Republican economic philosophy.

As with economic policy, Obama drew distinctions between his ideas about foreign policy and those of his predecessor. In February 2009, Obama announced plans to gradually withdraw the U.S. military from Iraq. In a speech announcing these plans at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Obama put the decision in the context of earlier campaign promises:

The first part of this strategy is therefore the responsible removal of our combat brigades from Iraq. As a candidate for President, I made clear my support for a timeline of 16 months to carry out this drawdown, while pledging to consult closely with our military commanders upon taking office to ensure that we preserve the gains we’ve made and to protect our troops. These consultations are now complete, and I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months.92

Despite its softer language—especially compared to the rhetoric about “overwhelming” rejection of Republican economic ideas—Obama’s statement about the withdrawal represented a departure from previous practice: previous presidents had rarely invoked electoral logic to deal with foreign issues, and never for one as central as the Iraq invasion. The difficulties associated with such claims are illustrated in Obama’s interview with Jim Lehrer on the same day. In a discussion about Obama’s announcement at Camp Lejeune, Lehrer asked the president about the withdrawal timeline: “You’ve caught some heat as you know, Mr. President, today from some of (p.160) your Democratic colleagues in Congress saying wait a minute, we’re not supposed to have 50,000 troops still there or what ever. What is your—the criticism being that the withdrawal is too slow and it isn’t as dramatic as they had expected, your colleagues, your supporters had expected. How do you answer that?”

Obama’s initial reaction went immediately back to campaign logic, stating:

Well, what I would say that is that they maybe weren’t paying attention to what I said during the campaign. I said that we were going to take 16 months to withdraw our combat troops from Iraq. We are now taking 18 months rather than 16. I said that we would have a residual force—a transition force that could continue to stand up Iraqi security forces, provide them logistical support and training and also make sure that we are protecting U.S. civilian and military personnel.

I said that we would have a counterterrorism capacity to make sure that al Qaeda or other extremist organizations did not try to take advantage of a diminished U.S. presence there. So everything that I said I would do during the campaign I am now doing.

Lehrer pressed the president further on the partisan dimensions of his decision, noting that, “John McCain and John Boehner—the Republican leader of the House—have praised your plan while the Democrats are criticizing it?” In Obama’s response, the electoral logic began to unravel, with an initial statement, “You know, I don’t—I don’t make these decisions based on polls or popularity. I make the decisions based on what I think is best,” followed by a reiteration that, “This is consistent with what I said during the campaign. The fact—if anything I think people should be interested in the fact that there’s been a movement in the direction of what I thought was going to be the right plan in the first place.”93

These statements illustrate the mismatch between mandate logic and the kinds of reasons that presidents usually invoke for issues of war and peace. The first incongruence involves the familiar tension between party and national leadership. When Obama first denounced the war in Iraq as a “dumb” mistake, he was an Illinois state Senator.94 Later, as a candidate for the presidency, contending first to win the Democratic primaries and then to garner enough votes to win office, Obama continued to assert his position. After assuming office, the president contended with the challenge of fulfilling (p.161) his promises without diminishing the sacrifice or accomplishments of the U.S. military (which Obama also noted in his exchange with Lehrer). Reconciling the difference between candidate and commander-in-chief was not the only pitfall of using electoral logic rhetoric to justify defense policy, however. Obama’s own words acknowledge that making decisions in response to public opinion—acting as a delegate—stands at odds with using one’s best judgment about a situation—acting as a trustee. Traditionally, presidents have justified foreign policy in terms of national security. Bush’s address to the nation before invading Iraq relied heavily on arguments about national security, stating that “the danger is clear” and asserting that “the United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security.”95 Human, civil, and political rights have also formed the basis for foreign policy rationales. Bill Clinton declared in his 1999 State of the Union address that, “You know, no nation in history has had the opportunity and the responsibility we now have to shape a world that is more peaceful, more secure, more free. All Americans can be proud that our leadership helped to bring peace in Northern Ireland. All Americans can be proud that our leadership has put Bosnia on the path to peace. And with our NATO allies, we are pressing the Serbian Government to stop its brutal repression in Kosovo, to bring those responsible to justice, and to give the people of Kosovo the self-government they deserve.”96 Even Eisenhower’s statements about withdrawal from Korea, a major subject in the 1952 campaign, did not draw explicitly on electoral logic.

Obama’s decision to frame his first major defense decision in terms of campaign promises suggests the depths of delegate logic in twenty-first century presidential politics. In some respects, this choice represents the natural extension of the trend that began in the transition period. It has become standard for presidents to present themselves as delegates, particularly in response to objections against their actions or proposals. The Iraq withdrawal timeline challenged some of the fundamental commitments of the Obama presidency. Obama’s opposition to the war had informed his candidacy against Hillary Clinton for the nomination, positioning the Illinois Senator as the more progressive candidate in the race. By proposing a gradual timeline, Obama strained his credibility with antiwar Democrats, as Jim Lehrer pointed out in the PBS interview in February 2009. At the same time, the move hardly won favor with conservatives; in a Gallup Poll about a month later, only 29 percent of Republicans reported approval of the (p.162) president’s handling of foreign affairs, compared with 64 percent of independents and 85 percent of Democrats. Faced with challenges from the left and the right and confronted with a new political identity as president rather than candidate, Obama turned to campaign promises to legitimize his approach.

On this particular policy, the stress placed on transparency and deliberation may have been a strategic choice on Obama’s part. This approach contrasts with the decision-making process for which his predecessor had been famous (or infamous, depending on whom one asked). Decisions in the Bush White House had a reputation for being, in Thomas Langston’s words, “made by instinct, without deliberation or consultation.”97 This perceived preference for quick and instinctual decisions was matched by his beliefs about the expansive nature of presidential power. Obama’s rhetoric about campaign promises and the beginning of the Iraq withdrawal thus represents a distinction from Bush, not only in the substance of the policy itself but also in presidential style.

Obama’s efforts to link the 2008 election result to good government, economic policy, and foreign policy meant that by the time debate began on the issue of health care reform, several mandate narratives had already been tried. Contrary to Reagan and Bush, whose efforts to construct mandates had focused on a few related issues, Obama had tried to justify a wide array of seemingly unconnected issues in terms of the election and campaign. Carter and Clinton had fallen into this pattern as well. More than either Carter or Clinton, however, Obama invoked partisan logic in his mandate rhetoric, echoing existing divisions. By claiming that the 2008 election had been the electorate’s rejection of Republican ideas, yet not offering a clear set of alternative economic ideas, Obama left himself vulnerable. Such pronouncements provided little incentive for Republicans, already disinclined, to cooperate with the administration. Yet they also fell short of offering a vision to unify the fissiparous Democratic congressional caucus, inviting detraction from the more conservative wing of the party during the long health care debate.

If voters had rejected Republicans ideas in 2008, this rejection was short lived. The 2010 midterms returned the House of Representatives to Republican control, and Republicans gained five seats in the Senate. The victory of Tea Party candidates in congressional races enhanced the sense of programmatic party politics. As part of a national movement, these highly conservative (p.163) candidates held clear positions on taxation and federal spending. The movement also borrowed heavily from the 1994 congressional campaign, issuing a ten-point formal agenda under the label “Contract from America.” During bud get debates in 2011, members of the House Tea Party caucus held fast to their promises, refusing to compromise during a protracted negotiation over raising the federal debt ceiling and reducing the deficit. Although their behavior was often decried as anything but responsible, members of the Tea Party clearly conceptualized politics as a game of winning elections on an agenda, and then adhering to their promises. Thus far, the combination of divided party government and agenda-driven politics has produced a series of near-crises and subsequent compromises, further serving to undermine governing legitimacy.

Challenging Obama’s authority also appeared to be a more explicit goal of the Tea Party movement. Denouncement of the president and his policies as “socialist” constituted a central idea of the movement.98 In the summer of 2010, a group in Iowa created a billboard comparing the forty-fourth president to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin.99 Speaking at a Tea Party event, former representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO) emphasized the president’s middle name, Hussein, and made jokes about his birth certificate.100 Controversy exists over the extent to which Tea Party activists embraced the “birther” movement that questioned the validity of Obama’s citizenship; a systematic study showed that a quarter of signs at a Tea Party rally expressed anger directed at the president, and only 5 percent mentioned race or religion.101 Regardless of the specific role of racism and xenophobia in the movement, the Tea Party’s electoral success in 2010 illustrates the extent to which presidents in the partisan era have become vulnerable to legitimacy challenges.

The Partisan Era from Reagan to Obama

Reagan’s controversial use of mandate rhetoric set the tone for the partisan era in several ways. By clearly and consistently interpreting the 1980 election as a conservative mandate, Reagan fused the roles of chief executive and conservative movement leader. The message of conservative movement politics also worked to undermine the legitimacy of government by suggesting that “government is the problem.” The implications of this rejection are (p.164) apparent in mandate rhetoric throughout the partisan era: Bush sought to construct a mandate to transform Social Security from a federal entitlement to a private investment program; Obama defended his plans for government action in terms of the electoral mandate.

Bush’s Social Security failure and Obama’s struggles with the Tea Party illustrate how the responsible-party ideal undermines governing legitimacy. Once largely saved for major institutional confrontations such as Jackson’s Bank War, Roosevelt’s court packing, or Nixon’s impoundments of funds, mandate rhetoric has now become a standard frame for presidential agendas. Deepening divisions between the two parties have inspired presidents to direct their mandate rhetoric at their supporters, claiming mandates for party agenda items. Yet, even after party victories in 2004 and 2008, the veto points of the American system thwart the responsible-party model. Bush failed to rally his own party around the Social Security plan, and Obama’s accomplishments, although considerable, inspired a powerful backlash. Mandate claims, often considered a means for presidents to bolster their persuasive power, appear instead to be, at best, irrelevant to governing, and at worst, part of a cycle of policy disappointment and crumbling legitimacy.


(1.) Michael Grunwald, “Obama Elected President with Mandate for Change,” Time, November 4, 2008.

(2.) Skowronek has referred to the period beginning with the Reagan presidency as “a state of perpetual preemption,” which would “offer reasonable prospects for presidents to get things done and shake things up, but little hope for disarming potential critics.” Skowronek, Politics Presidents Make, 444. His subsequent work has suggested that the patterns of political time persist into the twenty-first century. The approach in this book has been to decouple the institutional legitimacy of the presidency from the cycle of political time, which allows both observations to be true: the oppositional environment in which later presidents operate is more challenging, and presidents continue to follow the basic predictions of political time.

(3.) Raymond Tatalovich and John Frendreis, “Clinton, Class, and Economic Policy,” in The Postmodern Presidency: Bill Clinton’s Legacy in U.S. Politics, ed. Steven E. Schier (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), 48; Bruce Miroff, “Courting the Public: Bill Clinton’s Postmodern Education,” in Schier, Postmodern Presidency, 114–116.

(4.) The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 caused considerable disunity among congressional Democrats, most notably with regard to the bill’s provisions for federal subsidies for abortion coverage, led in the House of Representatives by Bart Stupak (D-MI) and in the Senate by Ben Nelson (D-NE). Jonathan Weisman, “Stupak: 15–20 Dems Can’t Back Obama Health Plan,” Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2010; Jodi Kantor, “Congressman Defies Party on Health Care Bill,” New York Times, January 6, 2010; Paul Kane, “To Sway Nelson, a Hard-Won Compromise on Abortion Issue,” Washington Post, December 20, 2009.

(5.) The Great Depression ended the Republican majority elected in 1928, with the House falling to the Democrats in the 1930 midterm and the Senate following in 1932. Democrats lost control of Congress in 1946, regained it in 1948, and lost again in 1952. (p.195) Republicans found themselves relegated once again to the minority in the 1954 midterms, a status they would maintain in the Senate until 1980 and in the House until 1994.

(6.) Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of American Conservatism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3.

(7.) For example, see Michael D. Shear, “Huckabee Questions Obama Birth Certificate,” New York Times, March 1, 2011.

(8.) Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey M. Berry, “From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio, and Cable News,” Political Communication 28, no. 1 (2011): 19–41.

(9.) Matthew Baum and Tim Groeling, “New Media and American Political Discourse,” Political Communication 25, no. 4 (2008): 345–365, 359.

(10.) Jeffrey Cohen, “If the News Is So Bad, Why Are Presidential Polls So High? Presidents, the News Media, and the Mass Public in an Era of New Media,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 34, no. 3 (2004): 512.

(11.) In Skowronek’s essay “Leadership by Definition: First Term Reflections on George W. Bush’s Leadership Stance,” in Presidential Leadership and Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal, 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011), he elucidates the ways in which the presidency of George W. Bush exhibits the characteristics of articulation, or “orthodox innovator” leadership. A different essay in the same volume explores the “reconstructive” potential of the Obama administration, weighing this possibility against the likelihood of a “preemptive” presidency. In particular, comparison between Obama and earlier preemptive leaders Wilson and Nixon suggests that opposition leaders who emerge later in the political order often have the opportunity to be “more strident in (their) assaults on the established regime and a bit more forthright in (their) attempts to replace it” (177). Furthermore, the political order initiated by Reagan has yet to experience a disjunctive presidency in the mold of Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter, distinguished not only by political failure but also by its “candid” recognition of the “deep-seated problems within the older order” (178). With this distinction in mind, I have placed Obama in the preemptive category for comparison purposes.

(12.) See Stephen J. Wayne, “Obama’s Personality and Performance,” in Obama in Office, ed. James Thurber (Boulder, CO: Paradigm), 2011.

(13.) See Andrew E. Busch, Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), chap. 3; Bruce Miroff, “The Presidential Spectacle,” in The Presidency and the Political System, ed. Michael Nelson (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008).

(14.) Andrew E. Busch, Reagan’s Victory: The Presidential Election of 1980 and the Rise of the Right (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 106.

(15.) Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (New York: Random House, 2009), 129.

(16.) Gerald M. Pomper, Ross K. Baker, Kathleen A. Frankovic, Charles E. Jacob, Wilson Carey McWilliams, and Henry A. Plotkin, The Election of 1980 (Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, 1981), 14.

(19.) In their analysis of the election, Paul R. Abramson, John H. Aldrich, and David W. Rohde point out that the House of Representatives became considerably more conservative based on which legislators kept their seats and which individuals retired or lost their reelection bids. Abramson, Aldrich, and Rohde, Change and Continuity in the 1980 Elections, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1983), 204.

(20.) Lawrence Grossback, David A. M. Peterson, and James Stimson, Mandate Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 150.

(21.) “Mandate for Change,” Wall Street Journal, November 6, 1980.

(22.) James M. Perry and Albert R. Hunt, “GOP Mandate,” Wall Street Journal, November 5, 1980; Gene G. Marcial, “Defense Issues Explode as Reagan’s Landslide Is Seen as Assuring Increased Spending for Arms,” Wall Street Journal, November 6, 1980.

(23.) Adam Clymer, “Presidential Pollsters Are Breeds Apart: Not a Mandate, but a Sanction,” New York Times, December 14, 1980.

(24.) Tom Wicker, “Mandate and Burden,” New York Times, January 20, 1981. The polling data cited in this article are both from the New York Times/CBS poll and from the Gallup Poll.

(25.) Gail E. S. Yoshitani, Reagan on War: A Reappraisal of the Weinberger Doctrine, 1980–1984 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012), 8.

(26.) Ronald Reagan, Remarks Signing a Memorandum Directing Reductions in Federal Spending, January 22, 1981.Public Papers of the Presidents [hereafter cited as PPP].

(29.) This approach appears to have worked, at least temporarily. See Marc J. Hetherington, Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism (Prince ton, NJ; Prince ton University Press, 2006), 23.

(31.) Jeffrey M. Jones, “Obama’s Approval Most Polarized for First-Year President,” Gallup News Service, January 25, 2010.

(32.) David Yalof, “The Presidency and the Judiciary,” in The Presidency and the Political System, ed. Michael Nelson (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009), 450. Although Roosevelt’s approach to the court was certainly political, his appointment strategy could be seen as a reaction to court decisions. In contrast, Reagan’s strategy, as described by Yalof, constituted an important opportunity for what Steven Teles has described as the “conservative legal movement.” Steven Teles, “Transformative Bureaucracy: Reagan’s Lawyers and the Dynamics of Political Investment,” Studies in American Political Development 23 (April 2009): 61–83.

(33.) Shirley Anne Warshaw, “The Other Reagan Revolution,” The Reagan Presidency, eds. Paul Kengor and Peter Schweizer (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 148–149.

(34.) For a summary of politicization and its roots in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, see David E. Lewis, The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control (p.197) and Bureaucratic Performance (Prince ton, NJ: Prince ton University Press, 2008), chap. 3 and 97–100.

(35.) Ronald Reagan, President’s News Conference, January 29, 1981, PPP.

(36.) Ronald Reagan, Message to Congress, March 10, 1981, PPP.

(37.) Max L. Friedersdorf, Letter to Patricia Schroeder, March 19, 1981, White House Office of Records Management [hereafter abbreviated WHORM] Subject Files, SP 281-05, box 63, Economic Recovery Address before Congress February 18, 1981 –Begin 008984 folder, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California [hereafter abbreviated RWR].

(38.) Lyn Nofziger, Letter to Patsy Mink, February 1981, WHORM Public Relations Collection, 002—Complaints about the Administration, box 11, folder 000001-05999, RWR.

(39.) Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Prince ton, NJ: Prince ton University Press, 2007), 53.

(40.) The emphasis on economic, rather than social, issues also helped the story of a conservative mandate to gain wider acceptance and to forestall counterclaims. As Geoffrey Kabaservice describes, Reagan’s early successes can be partially attributed to the fact that “the White House decided to prioritize the economic issues that most moderates agreed with over the social issues they did not.” Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 364.

(41.) Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis, Presidential Greatness (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 38.

(43.) Gary C. Jacobson, A Divider, Not a Uniter: George W. Bush and the American People, 2nd ed. Great Questions in Politics Series, ed. George C. Edwards III (New York: Pearson Longman, 2011).

(44.) Jeffrey M. Jones, “Bush Ratings Show Historical Levels of Polarization,” Gallup News Service, June 4, 2004.

(45.) Jeremy Cluchey, “Conservatives Rail Against MSNBC’s Olbermann for Reporting Election Irregularities,” Media Matters, November 16, 2004.

(46.) Charles Krauthammer, “Using All of a Mandate,” Washington Post, November 5, 2004.

(47.) E. J. Dionne, “He Didn’t Get It,” Washington Post, November 5, 2004.

(48.) Lyn Nofziger, “Bush’s Trouble Ahead,” New York Times, November 7, 2004.

(49.) Dante Chinni, “Is the Red Post-Election Tinge a Mandate? Don’t Bet on It,” Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 2004.

(50.) David D. Kirkpatrick, “Some Bush Supporters Say They Anticipate a ‘Revolution,’ ” New York Times, November 4, 2004.

(51.) Todd S. Purdum, “President Seems Poised to Claim New Mandate,” New York Times, November 3, 2004.

(52.) 2008 Republican Party Platform, August 25, 2008, APP.

(53.) George W. Bush, President’s News Conference, November 4, 2004, PPP.

(54.) George W. Bush, Remarks at a Republican National Committee Dinner, March 15, 2005, PPP.

(p.198) (55.) Robert Draper, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 297.

(56.) Fiona Ross, “Reforming Social Security,” in The Polarized Presidency of George W. Bush, ed. George C. Edwards III and Desmond King (New York, Oxford University Press, 2007), 423.

(57.) Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon, Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 83.

(58.) Ibid., 84.

(59.) Alec M. Gallup and Frank Newport, The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 2005 (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 5.

(60.) George W. Bush, “Remarks in a Discussion on Strengthening Social Security in Tucson,” March 21, 2005, PPP.

(61.) George W. Bush, “Remarks in a Discussion on Strengthening Social Security in Notre Dame, Indiana,” March 4, 2005, PPP.

(63.) Frank Newport and Joseph Carroll, “Pre-inauguration Attitudes Reveal Unmet Expectations, Hopes for Second Term,” Gallup News Service, January 20, 2005.

(64.) Michael A. Fletcher, “Bush Immigration Plan Meets GOP Opposition,” Washington Post, January 2, 2005.

(65.) Joseph Carroll, “Bush Job Approval Near Its Low Point,” Gallup News Service, June 19, 2007.

(66.) “Bush Hails Financial Rescue Plan,” BBC News, September 20, 2008.

(67.) Barack Obama, “Address in Chicago Accepting Election as the 44th President of the United States,” November 4, 2008, Campaign Documents, APP.

(68.) Barack Obama, “Illinois Senate Candidate” (transcript), Washington Post, July 27, 2004.

(69.) Robert P. Saldin, “Foreign Affairs and the 2008 Election,” The Forum 6, no. 4 (2008): 8.

(70.) To say that Bush’s 2004 strategy was oriented toward the Republican base is not to deny that the campaign sought to expand beyond its usual coalition. Indeed, the 2004 campaign did relatively well with Latino voters, garnering 44 percent to the 31 percent won by the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2000. However, political scientists David Leal, Matt Barreto, Jongh Lee, and Rodolfo de la Garza challenge this exit poll–based estimate. Furthermore, they and others provide evidence that “moral values” issues, including abortion and same-sex marriage, influenced the Hispanic vote for Bush. Marisa Abrajano, R. Michael Alvarez, and Jonathan Nagler find that “Hispanic voters who ranked moral values or terrorism as their most important issue, rather than taxes, were more likely to vote for Bush, controlling for other factors in the model.” This effect existed among white voters for terrorism, but not for moral values. Abrajano, Alvarez, and Nagler, “The Hispanic Vote in the 2004 Presidential Election: Insecurity and Moral Concerns,” Journal of Politics 70, no. 2 (2008): 375. Leal and others find a religion gap among Latino voters, with Bush doing considerably better among Latino “evangelical or born-again Christians” as compared to Catholics, mainline Protestants or secular voters who self-identified as Latino. Leal, Barreto, Lee, and de la Garza, “The Latino Voter in the 2004 Election,” PS: Political Science and Politics 38, no. 1 (2005): 41–49.

(p.199) (71.) Daniel J. Galvin, “Changing Course: Reversing the Organizational Trajectory of the Democratic Party from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama,” Forum 6, no. 2 (2008): 2.

(72.) Paul R. Abramson, John H. Aldrich, and David W. Rohde, Change and Continuity in the 2008 Elections (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010), 118.

(73.) Jeffrey M. Jones, “Obama Most Polarized First-Year Presidency,” Gallup News Service, January 25, 2010.

(74.) Carolyn Lochhead, “Debate Opens on Obama’s Mandate,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 2008.

(75.) David Sirota, “Mandate ’08: Reagan vs. FDR,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 31, 2008.

(76.) Editorial, “Obama’s Victory is a Mandate for Change,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2008; see also Brian Wingfield, “A Clear Mandate for Obama,” Forbes, November 5, 2008.

(77.) Jackie Calmes, “House Passes Stimulus with No GOP Votes,” New York Times, January 28, 2009.

(78.) See Sean Theriault, Party Polarization in Congress (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Marc Hetherington and Bruce Larson, Parties, Politics, and Public Policy in America, 11th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009).

(79.) Richard M. Skinner, “George W. Bush and the Partisan Presidency,” Political Science Quarterly 123, no. 4 (2009), 614–615.

(80.) Bert Rockman, “The Obama Presidency: Hope, Change and Reality,” Social Science Quarterly 93, no. 5 (2012): 1075.

(81.) Major Garrett, “Top GOP Priority: Make Obama a One-Term President,” National Journal, October 23, 2010.

(82.) “Days after decrying those who say Democrats are ‘trying to turn us into Communist Russia,’ Beck claimed ‘Obama has Marxist tendencies,’ ” Greg Lewis, Media Matters for America, January 14, 2009.

(83.) Rush Limbaugh, The Rush Limbaugh Show (transcript), January 16, 2009.

(85.) Barack Obama, Remarks to Senior White House Staff, January 21, 2009, PPP.

(86.) Carter experienced backlash when his longtime friend and head of the Office of Management and Bud get, Bert Lance, was accused of improper behavior. After emphasizing his “commitment to the highest ethical standards in government,” Carter’s defense of Lance damaged his credibility. Burton I. Kaufman and Scott Kaufman, The Presidency of James Earl Carter, 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), 73.

(87.) Angie Drobnic Holan, “Obama’s Lobbyist Rule: Promise Broken,” PolitiFact, March 17, 2009.

(88.) Frank Newport, “Seven in Ten Americans Say Lobbyists Have Too Much Power,” Gallup News Ser vice, April 11, 2011.

(89.) Jonathan Alter, The Promise: President Obama, Year One (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 147.

(90.) Barack Obama, Remarks on the National Economy, February 4, 2009, PPP.

(p.200) (91.) Obama’s negativity in describing the 2008 election stands out even in contrast with Bill Clinton, who had actually defeated the incumbent president, George H. W. Bush. Clinton’s mandate references in early 1993 stressed the theme of change (Remarks at a Town Meeting in Detroit, February 10, 1993, PPP; President’s Radio Address, March 20, 1993; President’s News Conference, March 23, 1993, PPP) and stressed his promises to end gridlock (Remarks at the Democratic Governors Association Dinner, February 1, 1993, PPP), decrease the size of the White House Staff (Remarks on Reduction and Reorganization of the White House Staff, February 9, 1993, PPP). However, these statements contrast with Obama’s in two important ways. First, they lack Obama’s emphasis on voters’ “rejection” of the previous administration’s policies; they frame the same process in positive rather than negative terms. Furthermore, Clinton’s rhetoric is devoid of statements condemning the governing philosophy of his predecessor; he cites policy and results rather than ideas.

(92.) Barack Obama, “Remarks on Military Operations in Iraq at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina,” February 27, 2009, PPP.

(93.) Barack Obama, Interview with PBS’ Jim Lehrer, February 27, 2009, PPP.

(94.) See George E. Condon Jr. “Fort Bragg Speech Evokes Memories of Another Iraq War Speech,” National Journal, December 14, 2011.

(95.) George W. Bush, Address to the Nation on Iraq, March 17, 2003, PPP.

(96.) Bill Clinton, Address before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, January 19, 1999, PPP.

(97.) Thomas Langston, “‘The Decider’s’ Path to War in Iraq and the Importance of Personality,” in Edwards and King, Polarized Presidency, 166.

(98.) Kate Zernike, Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America (New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2011), 78.

(99.) “Iowa Tea Party Group’s Sign Links Obama, Hitler,” Associated Press, July 13, 2010.

(101.) Amy Gardner, “Few Signs at Tea Party Rally Expressed Racially Charged Anti-Obama Themes,” Washington Post, October 14, 2010.