Moreover, two powerful presidents generally labeled “great” or “near great” by historians found themselves nonetheless thwarted in their ambitions to win re-election. Both Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson served as Vice Presidents who succeeded to the presidency upon the death of wildly popular incumbents (Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy), then won a full term in their own right. Widely expected to seek re-election, both men fared poorly in early primaries (Truman actually lost in New Hampshire to the little known Tennessee Senator Estes Keefauver) before withdrawing as candidates—and insisting that they’d intended to withdraw all along.
Of the fifteen presidents who prevailed in winning two consecutive terms (or four, in the case of FDR) nearly all of them count as historical giants and successful, significant chief executives. The only two arguable exceptions would be Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77) and George W. Bush (2001-09), and prominent academics have recently led a major resurgence in Grant’s historical reputation while Bush admirers await a similar re-evaluation for that undeservedly reviled war leader.
In considering the chances for Obama’s re-election, it’s obvious that he doesn’t count as either a sure loser with a thin or non-existent list of accomplishments, nor does he qualify as an obvious winner with a Rushmore-ready profile and a resume of immortal achievements. In other words, President Obama won’t experience the resounding rejection that doomed the re-election hopes of Franklin Pierce, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, nor will he register the inspiring vote of confidence that gave Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, Ike and Reagan back-to-back victories.
Despite the attempt at apotheosis by the glowing new, Tom Hanks-narrated documentary “The Road We Have Traveled,” Barack Obama can’t run as that sort of triumphant titan; nor need he hide as the feckless, dreary disgrace of conservative propaganda. He clearly occupies some middle ground among first termers, suggesting a fierce, closely contested battle against his all-but-certain opponent, Mitt Romney.
The long, sour, discouraging GOP primary battle has produced soaring Democratic hopes that the public will overcome all doubts and embrace Obama due to fear and loathing of the Republican alternative. But the inevitable course of the re-election struggle will make the race a referendum on whether the public wants another four years like those they’ve just experienced. Clearly, this particular race could go either way, but history shows that whenever once-elected presidents seek a second chance, more often than not the people say no.