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The media bias group Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR) has put together a terrific answer to the "mandate question." In their brief but damning article, When is a Mandate Not a Mandate: Different standards for different elections-- and parties (11/9/2012), they make plain how reporting about whether Obama has a mandate to govern is following a twisted story line that is less about what a mandate is (and what Obama and the Democrats would do with it) and more about reaffirming preconceived (and pre-election) notions about Obama, his supporters, and about Big Media's need to control the narrative. Continue past the curlycue for a summary and highlights.

With respect to mandates, the most instructive recent electoral comparison is the 2004 election.

286 electoral votes = a mandate.

In 2004, George W. Bush won 50.7 percent of the popular vote over Democrat John Kerry, and had a 286-251 edge in electoral votes. As FAIR noted (Media Advisory, 11/5/04), many outlets proclaimed that to be a "mandate." "Clear Mandate Will Boost Bush's Authority, Reach," read a USA Today headline (11/4/04); NPR's Renee Montaigne said (11/3/04), "By any definition, I think you could call this a mandate."

Fast forward to 2012:
303 to 332 electoral votes = not a mandate.

On CBS Evening News (11/7/12), Bob Schieffer declared, "In the hard world of American politics, the president did not get a mandate yesterday." On the NPR website (11/7/12), a headline was "For Obama, Vindication, But Not a Mandate." The Washington Post's Dan Balz (11/7/12) called it "an uncertain mandate, although Obama will attempt to claim one." While USA Today declared Bush's 2004 victory a mandate, the front-page of the paper the day after the [2012] election bore the headline "A Nation Moving Further Apart."

So when Bush got 50.7% to Kerry's 48.3% (+2.4%) of the popular vote, and had a 286-251 edge (+35) in EVs, that was a "Clear Mandate", but when Obama wins the popular vote 50.6 to 47.9% (+2.7%) and is +126 in EVs, that's an "Uncertain Mandate". Clearly, for the press, determining if a candidate has won a mandate is not about the numbers-- unless you're David Gergen and can't count:
For a proper mandate, CNN pundit David Gergen (11/6/12) declared that Obama needed to win "by a much more convincing national margin," adding, "the country has spoken tonight. It's not as clear and decisive as it would have been had President Obama won that first debate. I think now it's a much more complicated thing."
Wait a minute-- won that first debate? What the hell is he talking about-- we just had an actual election, with actual votes, by real people. What, exactly, is so "complicated"?

Could it be the overwhelming need to reaffirm one's own preconceptions about the race, however wrong-headed they might be?

Glenn Thrush of Politico (11/7/12) wrote that Obama's "hard-won victory seemed too narrow and too rooted in the Democratic base to grant him anything close to a mandate..."

The racial subtext of the "Democratic base" echoed the pre-election analysis of Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen (11/5/12), who wrote:

If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites.... It looks more likely than not that he will lose independents... A broad mandate this is not.

Translation: If you win with enough of the right white voters, it's a mandate; with the wrong voters, not so much. Never mind the inconvenient truth that in 2004, Bush beat Kerry 58 to 41% among white voters, while this year Romney won 59 to 39%-- essentially unchanged.

It's no surprise that Charles Krauthammer doesn't think Obama's got a mandate. But here's what he said in 2004:

When you have a popular vote majority... over 50 percent... and you expand your representation in the House and the Senate, in an election where the president ran on the record and on the stuff he says he's going to do in the future, you've got a mandate.
The final section of the article considers what, in the absence of a "clear mandate", the  media considers the appropriate road forward:
CNN pundit Gloria Borger (11/7/12) put it this way: "So what kind of a mandate does he have? His mandate is to fix things. And I think that's about as far as it really goes."

And Time magazine's Joe Klein (11/7/12) declared that "the election was a mandate for moderation," adding, "the last month of Mitt Romney‘s campaign, when he rushed to the center and suddenly made it a race, ratified the real will of the people..."
 

Then there's this gem:
On NPR (11/7/12), Cokie Roberts lamented the divide in the country, and defined the task for Obama this way:

It is a divide where he's lost whites, he's lost Southerners, he's lost people of a certain income and age, and he's really got to do something fast to deal with that.

Perhaps my favorite point from the whole piece is the wrap-up:
That is a curious notion about how politics work: that the politician who wins an election should quickly move to satisfy voters who did not support his agenda. But for many in corporate media, that is what centrism is all about--when the politician is a Democrat.
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