It's a good question. Assuming Obama wins, are we voting FOR him, or AGAINGST McCain? As Kurtz puts it,
Did we just vote for universal health care, or against that cranky old man and his dimwitted running mate?
The best that I can offer is a clear comparison with Clinton in '93. I moved to Washington, DC, in May of '92, so I was there for a few months before Clinton won. After he won, it was a magical, golden moment in history. There was a huge flood of idealistic young people, eager to reverse the course of American politics after 12 years of Republican rule.
The honeymoon didn't last long. Gays in the military exploded (very unexpectedly) in Clinton's face. The Cold War had ended, which left conservatives without an enemy, but also was forcing liberals to come to terms with the triumph of capitalism.
One problem that liberals had is that they did not have a successful model of a liberal presidency. In terms of a liberal domestic agenda, the most successful recent Democrat president was LBJ, but nobody really wanted to remember him.
Clinton had to change course from George H. W. Bush, but there were many options open to him, which meant that when he chose one path, he was invariably going to piss off some group of liberals.
Obama's first job, and it is a monumental one, is going to be to not change direction, but reverse course. Clinton shifted gears; Obama is going to have to spend a great deal of energy just stopping the bleeding and repairing the damage. Liberals will applaud him if he just does some simple things like closing Guantanamo and properly funding consumer product safety inspections.
Clinton suffered from what I call "magic wand expectations." Democrats expected him to waltz into the Oval Office, sprinkle some pixie dust, and voila! the revolution of the '60's would be accomplished. Snap! and we've solved all our problems with racism.
No one expects Obama to have a magic wand. It will take months for him just to start to right the ship of state. I think Clinton was ultimately more successful than many liberals give him credit for.
So what are the specifics of Obama's mandate? I would call it a variation on the old Nike slogan. Instead of "Just do it," it will be more like "Just do something." There will be the nomral disagreements among his supporters about the details of policy and squabbles over tactics. But most of us will be thrilled just that he hires good people at FEMA and the FDA. There are a couple of big picture goals that will be key: ending the war in Iraq, and solving the health care crisis. Get those two right, and much disagreements will be forgiven.
I think the most important, but least tangible, aspect of Obama's mandate will be reclaiming liberal pride in our ability to solve America's problems. Conservatives have been claiming that true patriotism is an unquestioning faith in George W. Bush, and a willingness to use force to solve problems. What they forget is that the most successful American corporations of late are ones that are all nuance and strategy, rather than brute force: Microsoft, Google, etc.
Obama is a politician who can sweat the small stuff and keep an eye on the big picture at the same time. Which is good, because that's what we need. There is a lot of cleaning up to do, and a lot of imagining to do, as well.