Obama's Victory: Mandate or Moderate?

Last night’s historic win by Sen. Barack Obama and the Democratic party isn’t yet a day old, and already we’re getting conflicting views of its meaning for business and international trade.

So take your pick: It’s a progressive mandate that should embolden the president-elect to launch decisive and even dramatic measures on behalf of the American worker — or it’s evidence that Americans of all political and economic backgrounds agree that the economy needs fixing, and he should be ready to disappoint the Democratic base to craft a centrist path.

Small surprise, the first view comes from a left-leaning think-tank and union officials; the second from business lobbies that typically back Republicans.

So who’s right? Enter Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

First, however, let's look a little closer at the dueling arguments:

On my left, weighing in with two press-releases, a conference call and a report on trade, the Campaign for America's Future, accompanied by organized-labor giant AFL-CIO. "CONGRESSIONAL ELECTIONS DELIVER A PROGRESSIVE MANDATE," says one press release. Pitching a conference call with newly elected officials and an AFL-CIO rep, the group says its new report "demonstrates that Democratic candidates who won Republican seats did so by embracing bold progressive economic positions."

Of five Democrats who picked up Republican Senate seats, the CAF says, two took stances aligned with six of CAF's key progressive principles (see below), and three supported all of them. Of 24 Democratic House candidates taking previously Republican seats, 11 backed all six principles, and most of the rest backed at least five. "Those who suggest that Senator Obama must move to the center are right in one regard, in that the center has moved," said Robert Borosage, CAF's co-director. "What voters expect after last night is a new era of reform." Added Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.): "It’s time for some boldness from Democrats."

On my right, weighing in with two teleconferences, a press-release and a 19-page glossy open letter to the president-elect, are the Business Industry Political Action Committee, a 45-year-old political analysis shop and the National Association of Manufacturers. "My message this morning to the business community was really quite simple, and it is that opportunity knocks," says Greg Casey, BIPAC's president and CEO. Business won this election, a colleague argued, because the issues in play were business issues. And a political analyst for the group suggested that many of the congressional Democrats who won seats this year and in 2006 weren't of the stereotypical mold. "What’s a Democrat?" Bernadette Budde said. "Given the people who were elected this time, you have to wonder."

All will be well as long as the new Congress and administration recognize that the independent swing-voters who elected them are anxious for practical solutions to the country's economic problems, Casey says. "The election signals a lot of things, but it doesn’t signal a philosophical lurch to the left." Pointing to Democratic overreaching early in President Clinton's first term and GOP missteps after 2004, he warns that political parties have "the tendency to lurch to a mandate that doesn’t exist," with damaging results in subsequent elections.

So there you have it: On the one hand, a new progressive mandate that calls for bold action; on the other, a moderate electorate that just wants government to fix the economy. As always, reality is more complicated, as Pew shows us in its analysis of exit-poll data. Some highlights:

  • Democrats come home: In terms of turnout, the party of FDR did indeed swamp the Republicans -- 39% of voters were Dems, 32% GOP, a big shift from the even split in 2004 and the biggest presidential-year spread since at least 1984. But Democrats still amounted to about 39% of voters, well within the normal range for the last quarter-century; independents ticked up 3 points to 29%, slightly above normal. In other words, fewer people identified themselves as Republicans, at 32%, down from 37% in 2004 and 35% in previous elections.
  • The wealthy redistributed: Obama got 60% of voters with annual incomes under $50,000, up a strong 5 percentage points from 2004; similarly, more middle-income voters -- making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year -- voted for the Democratic nominee, at 49%, up from 44%. But of those earning $100,000 or more, fully 50% voted for him as well -- up a striking 8 points from 2004.
  • It is indeed the economy, smarty: Whoever they voted for, three in five called the economy the country's top issue; but those who felt the pinch the most went for Obama more strongly. Add in health-care and energy -- both arguably economic issues for many Americans -- and you account for nearly eight voters in 10. McCain's heavy reliance on tax proposals and the claim that Obama would hike taxes didn't resonate -- perhaps because most voters thought both candidates would raise their taxes.

So did the electorate shift to the left, or did anxious Americans turn to a new party for help with the economy? We'll let you decide. Just don't expect this tug-of-war to go away anytime soon. This is essentially an early skirmish in a battle that is likely to rage throughout the first months of the Obama administration.

Those six principles cited by CAF are: supporting universal health-care; "fair trade, not free trade"; supporting investment in clean energy and an end to oil-company subsidies; supporting more union-friendly workplace organizing rules; increasing taxes on higher-income Americans while cutting middle-class taxes; and opposing private accounts in Social Security.
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