President Barack Obama speaks at the annual Veterans Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The biggest mistake President Barack Obama could make now is to arrogantly overinterpret the election results.
One of the dumbest things politicians do in the aftermath of elections is to claim a mandate. Even dumber is when they actually believe it. And re-elected presidents are especially susceptible to the mandate delusion.
At a news conference just after his re-election in 1996, Bill Clinton pointed to this pitfall. Noting he had just read a book about presidential second terms, Clinton observed that "sometimes the president thinks he has more of a mandate than he does and tries to do too much in the absence of cooperation."
George W. Bush, after his re-election in 2004, succumbed to this very trap.
"When you win there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view. And that's what I intend to tell the Congress," Bush crowed. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it."
As it turned out, Bush's capital was illusory. His press for private Social Security accounts went nowhere.
To some extent, Obama has more claim to a mandate on taxes than Bush did on Social Security. Bush mentioned Social Security during the campaign, but it was not the centerpiece of his bid for a second term.
For Obama, the question of taxes - in particular, the argument that the wealthiest Americans should be asked to pay more - was, as the president said Friday, "a central question during the election ... debated over and over again."
Nonetheless, to acknowledge that Obama has more of a claim to a mandate is not to say he has a solid hold on one. And the president and his allies are busy proclaiming the certainty of a mandate.
Vice President Joe Biden: "On the tax issue there was ... a clear sort of mandate about people coming much closer to our view about how to deal with tax policy."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "The mandate was ... everybody agrees that the richest of the rich have to help a little bit."
Re-election architect David Plouffe: "Voters clearly chose the president's view of making sure the wealthiest Americans are asked to do a little more in terms of reducing the deficit."
And the president himself: "On Tuesday night, we found out that the majority of Americans agree with my approach."
Deep breath, folks. The president's argument is correct - the wealthiest can and should pay more. The assertions of national consensus are premature.
First, look beneath the president's impressive Electoral College numbers. America remains a closely divided country. Flip about 155,000 votes in just four states - Ohio, Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire - and you end up planning a Romney inaugural. The freakish closeness of Florida 2000 obscures the minuscule percentage of the vote that those switches would entail: little more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the national vote.
Looked at another way, three of the last four presidential elections have featured a difference of fewer than three percentage points in the popular vote. Not since the 1880s has the country had a string of such close races.
A further caution: It's dangerous to confuse electoral victory with policy endorsement. Voters cast their ballots for an array of reasons - they didn't think Romney understood the problems of people like them; they perceived the economy was improving and gave Obama credit for it; they were reassured by Obama's response to Sandy; they hated Romney's car elevator.
True, exit polls showed 63 percent of voters saying taxes shouldn't be raised to help reduce the budget deficit; in answer to a separate question, 47 percent said taxes should go up only on the wealthy, and 13 percent said they should be increased for all.
But there is a difference between being able to point to support for your policy and arguing that the election settles the question. It didn't - any more than, as House Speaker John Boehner claimed, the re-election of a Republican House majority demonstrated that there is "no mandate for raising tax rates."
A politician who runs without an agenda cannot claim any mandate on election night. Yet even for a politician who runs with one, the hard work of convincing begins anew the next day.
- Ruth Marcus: firstname.lastname@example.org