Does President-elect Joe Biden have a mandate? Who cares?

Every four to eight years, the election of a new president is followed by a debate: Does the new chief executive have a "mandate" from voters to do exactly what he promised on the campaign trail? Members of the winning party always claim a mandate. Members of the losing party always dispute that claim. The underlying idea is that the voting results themselves are somehow not enough permission to govern as intended — that some magical extra ingredient is needed.

Sure enough, Biden moved quickly to assert his mandate from voters during his Saturday night presidential acceptance speech in Delaware, saying the electorate had made clear it wants aggressive action on everything from COVID-19 to the economy to climate change to a more bipartisan attitude in Washington, D.C.

"I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people," he said. "They want us to cooperate."

Not all Republicans have acknowledged, yet, that Biden will be the next president. But those who have also disputed that the president-elect has voter approval to do much of anything at all.

"Biden is gamely trying to pretend that he has won a mandate for the policy agenda he occasionally mentioned during his campaign," the conservative magazine National Review editorialized over the weekend. "That mandate does not exist, and Republicans have every reason to seek to stop that agenda from being enacted."

Conservatives weren't talking this way in 2016, after Donald Trump won the presidency with a minority of the popular vote. One would think that whatever makes up a mandate, having more support than the other candidate would be involved, but that isn't always the case.

"The truth is that President-elect Trump was handed a considerable mandate from a vast swath of America on Tuesday," Jeff Nesbit, a former Republican operative, wrote for Time in 2016. "They clearly want real change in the national government."

He added: "American voters gave Trump the keys to our national government on Tuesday, and a blank canvas on which to paint."

Mandates are mostly in the eye of the beholder, it seems.

Which might be one reason why they are so difficult to discern accurately. After taking office, Trump and his Republican allies attempted in 2017 to repeal ObamaCare, something the GOP had been promising to do for years. That turned out to be extremely unpopular, and set the stage for Democrats' big wins in the House of Representatives the following year. In 2004, President George W. Bush claimed he'd earned the "political capital" to privatize Social Security. He was wrong.

What's more, circumstances can take precedence. Working to control the pandemic and revive a faltering economy will be the top items on Biden's agenda, no matter what he might otherwise have had planned. And unexpected developments happen. Bush didn't campaign on going to war in the Middle East — in fact, he spoke against "nation building" during his 2000 campaign against Al Gore — but then 9/11 happened. Trump, in 2016, didn't campaign on his competence in battling once-in-a-century pandemics, but Americans expected it of him nonetheless. There is a decent chance that something will happen during the new administration that we don't anticipate now, but will come to define Biden's presidency. In such situations, mandates are irrelevant.

Finally, there's a lot of federal rulemaking that most voters are only dimly aware of when they go to the polls. The electorate in 2016 probably wasn't sending Trump to the Oval Office so he could allow coal companies to pollute rivers, but that's what happened. In that case, the people running things were less concerned about a so-called mandate and more interested in their power to accomplish their own goals. Democrats will similarly get a chance to nudge federal policies leftward through mostly obscure changes and additions to federal regulations.

The trick to governing in a democracy — mandate or no mandate — seems to be to do what you think is right with the power you have, while trying not to get too far ahead of what the people who elected you will tolerate. They will let you know if you overstep.

Biden's mandate, such as it is, will be largely dependent on what Georgia voters do during the two U.S. Senate runoff races scheduled for January. If Democrats should win those elections, they will also win control of the Senate — and have the opportunity to pass bold legislation on worker wages, climate change, and health care for the next two years. If not, Biden's options will be greatly constrained, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will surely claim a mandate of his own, no matter how thin his party's majority in the chamber.

So forget the great mandate debate. Winning office gives you the authority you need to pursue an agenda — and losing takes it away. Joe Biden got more electoral votes than Donald Trump. That's all the mandate he needs.

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