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After a “Referendum” Election

By Andrew J. Polsky


The 2012 presidential election has assumed the form of a popular referendum on Barack Obama’s four years in the White House. Put simply, neither the president nor his Republican opponent Mitt Romney has said much about what he would do if elected. Voters instead are being asked to render their verdict on the past. One consequence is that the winner, whether Obama or Romney, won’t be able to invoke a mandate for policy initiatives over the next four years.

President Barack Obama addresses Indiana residents during a town halll style meeting at Concord High School February 9, 2009 in Elkhart, Indiana.

At the moment, the two campaigns are pursuing very similar strategies — each tries to inspire the partisan base without antagonizing centrist, independent minded voters. There is a good deal of posturing to please those toward the extremes. Thus Republicans in the House weigh whether to cast a meaningless vote to repeal Obama’s signature health care measure, while the president declares himself in favoring of ending the Bush tax cuts for those earning over $250,000. For all the staging and fanfare, neither proposal stands the slightest chance of approval before or even after the election.

On the campaign trail, the president spends a good deal of time defending his record and blaming the Republicans for obstructing his efforts to do more. Since the 2010 mid-term election returned control of the House to the GOP, the country has been in a policy holding pattern, legislation stacked up like airliners waiting for their landing slots while the runways are solidly fogged in by campaign politics. The president makes showpiece announcements such as the new tax proposal to dramatize the contrast between his dedication to fairness for ordinary Americans and the Republicans’ solicitude for the wealthy. As to what Obama might actually do in a second term, however, we can really only guess and speculate. If he wins, it will be a triumph that sends no coherent signal, and he will struggle to fashion an agenda to which the Republicans must defer. (The GOP will retain control of the House; neither party will come close to the sixty votes needed in the Senate to move legislation.)

Romney seems ready to stake everything on voters’ disappointment with the halting economic recovery. At every turn, he declares himself to be the “not Obama.” Rather than identify a clear economic prescription, he has offered up his own personal history as a successful business leader, suggesting that his record alone should suffice to satisfy the electorate. For the Republican base, he endorses the general outlines of the Ryan budget, with its commitment to deeper federal tax cuts, though not some of the less popular particulars (such as the Medicare overhaul that would radically transform the program). But on the campaign trail he prefers to stick to the broader theme that the Obama stimulus approach has failed and the nation needs to turn in a different direction. In effect, he asks the electorate to change drivers without being very specific about the destination or the route.

As an electoral strategy, Romney’s approach may work. He has banked his campaign on the expectation that the economy would not recover sufficiently before the 2012 election to rescue the president. History is on Romney’s side; recent presidents facing high unemployment have fared poorly in their reelection bids. Obama’s approval rating, very much a reflection of how the public perceives his handling of the economy, hovers below fifty percent, and he fares especially poorly when respondents are asked about his handling of the economy. The poor numbers for new jobs in the past several months do not auger well for an incumbent.

But in terms of establishing a basis for governing, the former Massachusetts governor will find himself without any kind of a mandate for action if he wins. Running as the “not Obama” would remove from the table a few options that no Republican would be likely to support, such as another spending-oriented stimulus program. But a referendum election on a predecessor’s policy establishes no foundation for positive steps.

Unless the campaigns change their focus and adopt a forward-looking orientation, then, voters in November will declare no more than their level of satisfaction with where the country stands four years after its greatest financial collapse in two generations. The winner will earn no warrant to address the persistent aftereffects of the crisis. Nor will he be able to claim the people’s endorsement as he wrestles with challenges both expected (such as the draconian $1.2 trillion budget sequester) and unforeseen.

Americans look to elections for clarity, as a mechanism for sending unambiguous signals to their elected leaders. But leaders need to play their part, too. In 2012, their strategies, based on posturing and caution, point to an election with no decisive message.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

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  1. [...] months, the Romney team has tried to make the election a referendum on Obama’s first term. They believe they have failed, in large part due to the Obama campaign’s very successful [...]

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