Center for American Progress

Will the President Now Work For Greater National Unity?

Will the President Now Work For Greater National Unity?

The 2004 Election: A Mandate for Sweeping Change?

When President Bush commented during his victory speech, "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation," he gave hope to the overwhelming majority of Americans who want the nation to return to an era of greater unity and less vicious partisanship. The intensity of the divisions that separate America should be alarming to anyone who has followed the recent presidential campaign or the exchanges that occur in the halls of Congress.

But the president's credibility on this subject is a little thin. He campaigned in 2000 as a candidate who could reach across party lines and play the role of a national unifier. Nonetheless, his first term was marked by the most intense partisanship in memory. Even during the period after the 9/11 attacks, he refused to work with either party in Congress on steps to strengthen homeland security. His "my way or the highway" approach to policy, which was later noted by foreign leaders, was already apparent in his dealings with his own Congress.

So should the nation take seriously the president's pledge to reach out during his second term? Only time will tell, but early indicators are not particularly encouraging. Unity in a democracy comes from a search for common ground and from a willingness by both parties to compromise a portion of their desires in order to build a broader and more sustainable consensus. Yet during his campaign and at the press conference he held only two days after the election, he signaled a strong commitment to stay the course on his Iraq policies, demand action on the privatization of Social Security, and push for even deeper tax cuts despite rapidly exploding deficits.

Perhaps even more ominous are the White House spin team's newly initiated efforts to recast the election results as a national mandate for President Bush's policies. This is a case that is far too difficult to make —and it should not occupy the time of individuals who are seriously interested in building a broader consensus. As White House staff told reporters on Wednesday—and as was dutifully reported on network broadcasts Wednesday night—the president not only won the largest number of votes of any candidate for the presidency in history, but he was the first candidate in years to win a majority of the popular vote.

It is true that he won the largest number of votes of any candidate in history. But it is also true that the U.S. population is growing by nearly three million people a year. Population growth is the reason that 33 of the 45 presidents elected since popular vote totals were recorded could say the same thing.

It is true that because of active third party campaigns, no other candidate since 1988 has received a majority of the votes cast. But it is also true that only three sitting presidents in American history who were re-elected had a smaller percentage of the popular vote. Further, those three were all re-elected during periods of strong support for third party candidates (periods in which the third parties captured at least 4.5 percent of the total vote). George W. Bush's vote tally was only 6.3 percent larger than that of his opponent – no president has ever been re-elected with a margin that small.

The fact is, as anyone who stayed up for election night knows, Bush would not serve a second term if 70,000 of his supporters had voted for his opponent. The exit polls tell us that the reason they did not was not because of his policies in Iraq, the jobs that have been produced by his tax cuts, or his promise to privatize a portion of Social Security. Less than half the voters leaving Ohio polling places told pollsters that the country was headed in the right direction. By a 52 to 43 percent margin, they felt the war in Iraq was not going well. Fifty-three percent said that the war had not improved the long-term security of the United States. On the economic front, only 31 percent said that they were better off than when Bush became president and 55 percent said that the job situation in their area was worse than it had been four years ago, while only 17 percent said it was better.

President Bush got far more than 70,000 votes from Ohioans who had negative views on his management of the war in Iraq and his efforts to create jobs. Ultimately, they voted for him despite their misgivings about his programs and his stewardship because they believed his relentless television attacks that argued his opponent was unfit to hold office. As a result, Bush's mandate amounts to little more than the fact that a slight majority of votes see him as better than someone he convinced them was unfit. His insistence that sweeping policy change was the message of the voters portends little hope for the prospects of unity and bipartisanship.

The 2004 Election: A Mandate for Sweeping Change?

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow