With two months to go until Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, supporters, critics and political analysts are debating exactly how much of a public mandate he has to act once he’s in office.
History shows that new presidents often have the most political leverage at the beginning of their presidencies, especially if they belong to the same party that controls Congress. In the case of Trump, one outstanding question is whether he will pursue a “Republicans only” philosophy to move his agenda through Congress, or whether there will be areas where he could draw support from opposition Democrats.
Despite turmoil in the transition phase and ongoing protests around the country, Trump insists he is ready for the challenge ahead and sought to reassure voters in a recent 60 Minutes interview on CBS. “I respect it but I’m not scared by it,” he told Lesley Stahl.
Congressional Republicans are looking at Trump’s unexpected win as a political windfall, seeing opportunities to move conservative ideas that were stalled during the Obama years. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan was upbeat when he met reporters earlier this week, eager to begin the work of implementing the Trump agenda, even if questions remain about the details.
“Welcome to the dawn of a new unified Republican government,” Ryan said when he and other House Republican leaders spoke to reporters at the Capitol.
President-elect Donald Trump, his wife Melania and Vice president-elect Mike Pence, talk as they pose for photographers with House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. after a meeting in the Speaker's office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 10, 2016.
As expected, there was a more qualified welcome for Trump from the new Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York. “When we can work together, we will; but I’ve also said to the president-elect, on issues where we disagree, you can expect a strong and tough fight,” Schumer told reporters after Democrats confirmed their new leadership team. That group includes Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who mounted a strong progressive challenge to Hillary Clinton’s nomination bid during the primaries.
Delivering on promises made
Trump owes his election to strong support from white working-class voters looking for change, especially those in key states in the upper Midwest that had voted Democratic for the past several elections.
“So the turnout issue was really biased toward the intense turnout for Trump,” said Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “People really felt they wanted him and to change the system versus lukewarm support for the establishment candidate.”
Trump won a clear majority of votes in the Electoral College over Clinton, 290 to 232, with Michigan’s 16 electoral votes outstanding as votes are still being counted. The required total to win the White House is 270.
Trump holds a lead of about 13,000 votes in Michigan. He won Wisconsin by about 24,000 votes and Pennsylvania by about 66,000 votes. Given those narrow victories, a shift of a little more than 100,000 votes in these three states to Clinton would have provided her with a narrow Electoral College victory.
Hillary Clinton pauses as she addresses her staff and supporters about the results of the U.S. election at a hotel in the Manhattan borough of New York, Nov. 9, 2016.
Clinton continues to hold a lead of more than 1 million votes over Trump in the nationwide popular vote, the fifth time in U.S. history that the winning candidate has not won the popular tally. Democrats insist that Trump’s loss of the popular vote will limit his claims of a large mandate, although Republicans are dismissive of that notion.
History says move fast
With Republicans holding on to control of both chambers of Congress, Trump should be able to move swiftly once he’s in office to forge his legislative program on tax reform, immigration and health care. “So you want to cook when the stove is hot and you want to move quickly,” said Georgetown University professor Stephen Wayne. “And usually the case for presidents who get elected is that the most favorable partisan composition of the Congress occurs in their first term.”
Ryan may see openings to pursue an agenda focused on cutting taxes and repealing President Barack Obama's signature health reform, known as Obamacare, that appeals to House conservatives. Many analysts, however, believe Congress is likely to defer to Trump, at least initially.
“He’s the actual leader, and Republicans, they are going to have to — kowtow is not the right word, but they are going to have to be a lot more accommodating to what he wants to do than vice versa,” said longtime Washington analyst and National Journal contributor Tom DeFrank, a guest on VOA’s Issues in the News program.
Beware of mandates
Ryan and his Republican Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, are both optimistic about moving a conservative agenda ahead in the new Congress. But McConnell cautioned that it is often easy for the victors to misread the breadth and depth of what they regard as a mandate from the voters.
From left, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, participate in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 16, 2016.
“I think it is always a mistake to misread your mandate, and frequently new majorities think it is going to be forever,” McConnell told reporters recently at the Capitol. “Nothing is forever in this country. We have an election every two years right on schedule and we have had since 1788.”
As if to buttress McConnell’s point, a new poll by The Washington Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government found that only 29 percent of those polled believe Trump has a mandate to carry out the promises he made during the presidential campaign. That is in contrast to the 50 percent who said Obama had a mandate when he was first elected in 2008 and the 41 percent who thought George W. Bush had a mandate after his contentious victory in the 2000 election over Al Gore.
In addition, Karl Rove, former top political adviser to George W. Bush, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that both Trump and Clinton had record low public approval ratings during the campaign. Rove also noted exit polls that pointed to economic concerns and a desire for change as the key issues in the election, and he predicted that “the electorate could get grumpy quickly if President Trump doesn’t produce bigger paychecks and stronger growth."
Expectations for action
Despite the cautions, once Trump takes office, his supporters will demand action, and most voters, whether they supported him or not, understand a new president is expected to push hard to get his agenda through Congress.
“I think any president who wins has a mandate to govern. It’s their job,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, who has not been shy in the past about criticizing Trump. “Essentially at the core, what they have to do is heal the country, get stuff done for the American people and prove that this government can work.”
That is a tall order, and the president-elect has two months to get ready for what is likely to be a whirlwind first 100 days in office.