President Obama did something extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, in his news conference immediately after the midterm elections: He claimed a mandate on behalf of voters who didn’t vote.
“To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you,” the president said. “To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
What did that mean? What did those non-voters say?
It would probably be more useful to ask what the president heard. And apparently Obama heard expressions of support from nonvoters across the land.
The president explained that many more voters turned out when he was elected, and then re-elected, than in the midterms that left Republicans firmly in control of the House and Senate. “One of the things that I’m very proud of in 2008 and 2012, when I ran for office, was we got people involved who hadn’t been involved before,” Obama said. “Part of what I also think we’ve got to look at is that two-thirds of people who were eligible to vote just didn’t vote.”
Of course, more than one-third of the people who were eligible to vote in Obama’s two presidential elections didn’t vote then, either. But Obama’s message to Republicans was unmistakable: My mandate is bigger than your mandate.
Everyone knew, going into the midterms, that Democrats were desperate to reassemble the vaunted Obama coalition of 2008 and 2012. If that combination of minorities, women and young people came to the midterm polls in the same numbers they did in presidential years, Obama’s party would do very well.
But that didn’t happen. Obama spoke at his post-defeat news conference as if the voters who supported him in 2008 and 2012 had made a sort of virtual trip to the polls in 2014, delivering a silent but more powerful message than the one sent by Americans who actually turned out.
Mentally, the president appears stuck in 2012. Back then, he hoped for victories on gun control, immigration and the environment. But he got very little done. Now, having lost big in his second midterms, Obama is trying to remind everyone that he used to be a winner.
The problem is that presidential terms last four years, but presidential mandates don’t. George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 and used his victory to try to enact Social Security reform. He failed, and two years later paid for the unpopularity of his policies — most notably, the Iraq war — with a huge defeat in the 2006 midterms.
By the time Bush lost Congress, his mandate was gone, and he was reduced to exercising the core constitutional powers of the presidency.
Bush’s acceptance of defeat was a model of reality-based politics. “I’m obviously disappointed with the outcome of the election, and as the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility,” Bush said. “It was a thumping.”
Obama didn’t come anywhere near that sort of acknowledgment. Several days later, he conceded some responsibility for the results, but if in time he doesn’t fully accept what happened in the midterms, the nation could be in for two years of a president living in the past, pointing to a mandate that is long past its sell-by date.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.