The Mandate Mantra

A new president means a new challenge for the press

A comfortable Democratic margin of victory, coupled with gains in the House and Senate, and the word “mandate” is on everyone’s lips. (A full round-up of MandateGate is available at New York’s Web site.)

Per CBS News today:

As far as epochal moments of a nation are concerned, the election of Barack Obama to be the forty-fourth President of the United States is virtually certain to rank near the very top. While the historical, sociological and political meaning of campaign 2008 will be written about and analyzed for a generation or more, the immediate impact of the election results is this: A sweeping mandate for Obama’s campaign mantra of change.

The word “mandate,” used derisively by conservatives and optimistically by Democrats, implies that the electorate, by voting for Obama, has given him full authority to enact the agenda he articulated during the campaign. The map has been redrawn, racial barriers eliminates, the states united at last, right?

Well, maybe. While it’s tempting, the day after the election, to sing sweet songs of unity, it’s worth pointing out that we don’t actually have a full and nuanced explanation of why Obama was elected. Was it because of his charisma? McCain’s bungling of the economy questions, and/or his choice of Sarah Palin? The current president’s low approval ratings? The economy? Did many Republicans cast a vote against McCain, but not necessarily for Obama?

There isn’t, and probably won’t be, clear data to substantiate the reasons behind Obama’s victory. And so, while we can reflect on America as a country that’s elected a new president in a historic election, we probably can’t proclaim America a new country. We’ve had an election, not a rebirth. To seize the narrative of a new America is to ignore the many real problems still facing this country, and to forget that inequality still exists.

What’s more, even if we accept the premise for argument’s sake, a mandate given by a unified electorate does not equal carte blanche. In order to enact legislation, Obama will have to work with conservative Democrats in the Senate, whose support is not guaranteed for many of his proposals.

Talk of a mandate allows for several assumptions: that reform is inevitable, that Obama will coast through his term like he coasted to victory, and that conditions in America will improve just by virtue of his election. But these assumptions are false. After this election, the relationship between White House and the press corps has a clean slate. The last eight years have illustrated what can happen when the media dislike a president who shuts off press access. The next four years may show what could happen if the media cover a president they like, but still are tough on him, and hold him accountable for his words and actions.

The real mandate here is on the press, weary after a long campaign. Perhaps they were “in the tank” for Obama, like the rest of the country. Maybe not. Whatever the case, they’ve got a president-elect who has primed the nation’s hope organ. It’s up to the press to keep him accountable to the people who elected him.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.