A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
As he campaigns for re-election, Barack Obama pursues a profound and uncommon honor denied to nearly two-thirds of his predecessors. Contrary to a widely held popular belief, political history doesn’t anoint incumbent presidents as automatic winners or even presumptive favorites. The numbers show that most presidents fail in their efforts to maintain a long-term hold on the affections of the fickle public and that Obama will face an uphill struggle in attempting to reprise his epic victory of 2008.
Of the 42 men who served as president before the current incumbent, only 15 won two consecutive elections.
Among the others, 5 died during their first terms, 7 incumbents declined to run, 5 tried but failed to win their party’s nomination, and 10 won the nomination but lost their bids for re-election. What’s more, three former presidents (Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore and Theodore Roosevelt) attempted to make comebacks and roared out of retirement as third party candidates; all three of them failed miserably in November, winning between 10 and 27 percent of the popular vote.
The numbers look even worse for second terms if you remove the early “cocked hat” presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe) who easily won re-election before the emergence of the modern two-party system. Washington and Monroe, for instance, both eased into second terms without campaigning and without facing even token opposition. With these early chief executives withdrawn from the equation, 70 percent of those who have served as president since 1825 (26 of 37) failed to win two consecutive terms.
Some of these one-termers counted as obvious failures, rejected by big majorities of their contemporaries and winning scant respect from historians. Even at the time, no one expected John Tyler, James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson to renew their leases on the White House. But other presidents who lost bids for a second term played big roles in history and have earned many admirers throughout the generations. If Barack Obama fails in his bid for re-election, he will join such estimable predecessors as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland (who came back from his second-term loss to win a non-consecutive victory), William Howard Taft (who returned to Washington as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) and George Herbert Walker Bush.