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Big question: How does a president-elect claim an election mandate?

“Four score and seven years ago … ” and “Ask not what you can do for your country … ” were used by Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, respectively, to help gain American support of their political policies. We asked Department of Political Science Assistant Professor Dr. Julia R. Azari why both were right for the times and the people and how rhetoric helps shape how we think about political issues.

In a complex world of politics and policy, political rhetoric provides a crucial source of meaning. Few people care to keep up with the intricacies of insurance reform or international security. The words that politicians use to define these problems offer interpretations of what is at stake and guide the public conversation on the issues of the day. Think of “death panel,” “affordable care,” “axis of evil.” Rhetoric shapes how we think about and discuss political issues.

The period after the presidential election is an especially important opportunity for politicians to use rhetoric to define issues and reorder the political landscape. Whether we are talking about a landslide like 1964 or an excruciatingly close contest like 2000, the questions that emerge are often similar: Was the result a mandate for a particular policy? How will the messages of the campaign translate into a coherent governing vision? Will the winner define the agenda in a way that accommodates the viewpoints of the losing side or will the newly elected leader simply tell the opposition as Obama did in 2009 “I won”?

Presidents have taken different approaches to the question of interpreting elections. After World War II, it was not common for presidents to emphasize the election result as an endorsement of a partisan policy agenda. Lyndon Johnson described his 1964 landslide victory as a “mandate for unity” and rarely connected the victory concretely to his extensive policy agenda. Similarly, Dwight Eisenhower spoke in his 1953 State of the Union Address about “summons to governmental responsibility issued last November by the American people” and outlined broad priorities, including national security, prosperity and efficient government.

In contrast, more recent presidents have been far more likely to define their electoral mandates in ways that exclude their opponents. Ronald Reagan framed the 1980 election as a mandate for conservative economic policy. George W. Bush claimed he was elected in 2000 to cut taxes and in 2004 to reform Social Security. After taking office in 2009, Obama asserted that the 2008 election had been a “rejection” of Republican economic ideas.

The framing of the November 6 results will reflect and shape politics. With a status quo in Congress a Republican House and a Democratic Senate the choice to frame the election as an inclusive mandate or a narrowly partisan one has the potential to set the tone for governance and to test whether, in fact, the two parties can eventually find some common ground.

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