If I were in possession of a time machine, the top of my destination list would be the Constitutional Convention. Maybe the First Continental Congress. Or really any of the seminal gatherings at which our Founding Fathers hotly debated the ideas leading to the formation of the United States.
Among the topics I would hear in those epic debates, one concept that would never arise would be the notion of a “presidential mandate.”
Hard though it may be for our modern ears to hear, the Founders did not view the presidency to be what it has become — that of the “most powerful person on the planet.” Actually, they might have been terrified at the thought.
What I might see in my time time travel would be the Founders viewing the job a little like that of the president of your homeowners’ association: a position no one really wants but undertakes out of a sense of civic duty.
They understood that the President of the United States would be imbued with limited power they granted him — the purpose of which was primarily to execute the will of the people and the states as articulated through their representatives in Congress.
“Nothing shall be wanting on my part to inform, as far as in my power, the legislative judgment, nor to carry that judgment into faithful execution.” – President Thomas Jefferson, First Annual Message to Congress, December 8, 1801
This was, for example, why the President could not actually declare war. It was the job of the President to guide a war declared by Congress as the Commander-in-Chief, and only such a war.
Thus, the Presidency was not originally the prize to be won at any cost. It is only after a couple of centuries of expansion of government at all levels that we now have a powerful Chief Executive. And as a result, now individuals, special interest groups, and God only knows who else spends hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
Where did the “mandate” come from?
In the Autumn 1990 issue of Political Science Quarterly, Yale professor Robert Dahl looked into the history of what he described as the Myth of the Presidential Mandate. He argues that prior to Andrew Jackson, presidents infrequently used their veto power and did so only on Constitutional grounds.
Jackson’s innovation, according to Dahl, was to use the veto “…as a defense of his or his party’s policies.”
Dahl traces a shift in the theory of presidential elections, beginning with Jackson’s 1832 reelection, toward the view that it was a way for the people to directly ratify the policies of the candidate. While Jackson didn’t seem to promote this idea himself, much less use the term “mandate,” it was only a few elections later when one of his successors did exactly that:
“The people, by the constitution, have commanded the President, as much as they have commanded the legislative branch of the Government, to execute their will….” – President James K. Polk, State of the Union Address, December 5, 1848
This shift, Dahl contends, culminated in the Progressive thinking of Woodrow Wilson who, in 1908, prior to his election as President, wrote:
“The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can…. There is no national party choice except that of President. No one else represents the people as a whole, exercising a national choice… The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman.” – Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government.
Wilson took this idea seriously, issuing a record 1,803 executive orders in true Progressive style, roughly equivalent to the sum of his two immediate predecessors, who between them issued more than all the preceding U.S. presidents combined. You see the arc. Perhaps it’s no accident that the Federal Reserve and the Income Tax both came into being during his extra-Constitutional watch.
In the century since Wilson aggressively acted on his words, succeeding presidents have claimed their election as a “mandate” from the people. Even the most casual observer of history, however, will realize that this claim is a universal exaggeration. The largest percentage of votes received by the winner of a Presidential election was only 61% (Lyndon Johnson in 1964). While a mathematical majority, it can hardly be viewed as a universal demand from the people for a specific policy to be enacted. More recently however, elections have been bare majorities, or even pluralities. Trump received less than 47 percent of the vote.
Every election is different. But the forces that influence voters are far too complex for any objective, rational person to conclude that such close elections are a “mandate” — beyond theory and rhetoric.
As neither Trump or Clinton was going to get more than a plurality — less than half of voters — neither was going to have a mandate. But both would claim it as Trump’s campaign has. This is a long-term, bipartisan fiction that Americans should not buy into. What Trump does have is a duty to lead well and keep his promises.
David G. Johnson is Founder and CEO of Grow the Dream, a strategic marketing firm based in Sarasota, Fla.