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How Joe Biden can effectively govern without a mandate

More than 70 million Trump voters and a potentially divided Congress pose a challenge for the president-elect

President-elect Joe Biden speaks on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

The good news for President-elect Joe Biden is that he got more votes than any other presidential candidate in history.

The bad news for him is that President Donald Trump got the second-highest number of votes, meaning that the country remains politically divided and seemingly poised to continue fighting over the direction in which the country should go.

In other words, if there’s a mandate in the election results once finalized, it’s not clear or obvious.

As of Monday, Trump had received 71.2 million votes to Biden’s 75.6 million, and the makeup of the U.S. Senate hangs on an expected runoff election for two seats in Georgia. If Republicans prevail in Georgia on Jan. 5, Biden could find it difficult to pass ambitious legislation seen as partisan through a divided Congress, analysts say.

In fact, some presidents don’t even try.

“Since 1828, roughly half of our presidents have entered office asking for major policy changes on behalf of the electorate. Half did not,” Patricia Heidotting Conley, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Chicago, wrote in “Presidential Mandates: How Elections Shape the National Agenda.”

Sometimes that’s because the races were so close that the president couldn’t claim a clear mandate, a problem magnified if the candidate won the presidency without winning the popular vote, as in the case of George W. Bush, the 43rd president.

True mandates are rare, said Jeremy Pope, a political science professor at Brigham Young University and co-director of the school’s Center for the Study of Democracy and Elections.

Mandates are also difficult to discern because Americans vote for people, and not for a platform. (The Republican Party didn’t issue a platform in 2020, instead sticking to the one it promoted four years earlier.)

A candidate could win simply because his opponent ran a poor campaign, not because voters liked his stance on issues, according to Conley. “The voice of the people is not so easy to decipher, even if all votes are accurately counted,” she wrote.

Without a mandate inferred from overwhelmingly lopsided election results, national polls such as the American Family Survey offer reliable information on policies that Americans of all political persuasions most want their lawmakers to pursue. And Pope, at BYU, said that for Biden to be successful, he’s going to have to think in terms of what he can realistically get through Congress.

Here’s what could happen if Biden pursues what the late German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck described as “the art of the possible.”

President-elect Joe Biden gestures on stage after speaking on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Hard work

After the major networks called the election for him on Saturday, Biden tweeted that “the work ahead of us will be hard.” It didn’t take long for others to suggest that the work wouldn’t be just hard, but unachievable.

Writing for New York Magazine, Eric Levitz pronounced the Biden presidency doomed if Democrats don’t win control of the Senate in January.

“With Mitch McConnell in control of the Senate, Biden will not be allowed to appoint a Supreme Court justice, or appoint liberals to major Cabinet positions, or sign his name to a major piece of progressive legislation; and that may very well mean that the U.S. government will not pass any significant climate legislation, or expansion of public health insurance, or immigration reform, or gun safety law this decade,” Levitz predicted.

Levitz believes that the progressive agenda, which he supports, suffered in 2020.

Similarly, even though a Democrat appears to have won the presidency, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said on “Meet the Press” Sunday that the outcome of other races around the country showed that conservatism remains strong.

“The presidential race was more a referendum on a person, and when it comes to policy we did pretty well,” Romney said. “I don’t think the American people want to sign up for the Green New Deal. I don’t think they want to sign up for getting rid of coal or oil or gas.”

Research by Gallup has shown that slightly more than one-third of Americans are politically moderate. The polling firm says that 37% of Americans identify as conservative, compared to 35% who say they are moderate and 24% liberal.

So how can Biden, who has pledged to be a president for all Americans, not just the ones who voted for him, govern in a way that pleases people on both sides of the political aisle?

Steven S. Smith, a social science professor and expert on congressional politics at Washington University in St. Louis, said that Biden won by emphasizing himself as a moderate while endorsing liberal policies in statements and white papers. He is likely to forge a moderate path, which ensures that some of his supporters are going to be frustrated, Smith said.

“It’s not clear what a moderate proposal — on the economy, COVID, infrastructure, education, the environment — would look like. We don’t have much representation in the moderate space in the political spectrum. We haven’t seen policies generated in that space for a very long time,” he said.

Biden might find success with an infrastructure package, which generally enjoys bipartisan support, “although that doesn’t get too many people excited.” More promising is COVID-19 relief, which both Republican and Democrat respondents in the American Family Survey backed.

“We still have more than 10 million people unemployed, and the stock market might be performing well, but economic growth is going to be quite modest and deficits are going to be huge,” Smith said. “He’s going to have to show a path through that forest of problems.”

Economics ‘loom large’

The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

Conducted first in 2015, the survey is designed to reveal the experiences of Americans in their relationships, marriages and families, and how those experiences relate to a variety of current events and public policy issues.

Among other questions, respondents are asked what are the most important issues facing American families in areas of culture, family structure and economics. In the past five years, concern about economic issues has increased by 10 percentage points, this year’s report said, with only 4% of Americans strongly agreeing that child-rearing is affordable, while 19% strongly disagreed.

“Clearly, economic issues loom large in the minds of many Americans when they think about family responsibilities and parenting,” the report said.

Respondents were widely supportive of COVID-19 relief, regardless of ideology. And they are also strongly supportive of marriage and family as a way of organizing society, which Pope said could help to guide Biden and other policymakers as they seek measures that could appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.

“It’s pretty clear what the public wants on coronavirus relief: help for small businesses, help for individuals and families. They don’t really want a lot of help for corporations. They also want price controls.

“It’s seems to me it’s pretty clear what a package should look like: more checks, more help for small businesses. There’s overwhelming support for all of this from both parties, even among independents. It’s clearly in the survey data, what the public wants.”

As for mandates in general, Pope dismisses their importance.

“There were a few elections in American history where there was something like a mandate, but they are few and far between,” Pope said. “In most average elections, especially this one, we don’t really get a clear mandate from the public.”

That’s because of the way the U.S. government was formed, with the presidency, the judiciary and Congress created as independent forces, Pope and his co-author, Shawn Treier, explain in their forthcoming book “Founding Factions, How Majorities Shifted and Aligned to Shape the U.S. Constitution.”

“We ended up creating a system where there is no real need for the public to create a mandate,” Pope said. “They can have Democratic presidents and Republican House members and Green Party senators, or whatever, and that is fundamentally, at a systemic level, what the Constitution does.”

In this system, a mandate only exists if one candidate wins overwhelmingly, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1932 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

“I don’t think mandates are absolutely impossible, but even in those cases where you get them, really what the electorate has said is, ‘We’re very dissatisfied with the other side. What are you going to do?’”

But if he doesn’t have a mandate, Biden has something else that could prove important, political capital, Smith said.

“He has more political capital than almost any other president we’ve seen, maybe since Lyndon Johnson. He has a reputation as a dealmaker. But it will have to be done with great care at the start,” he said.