If Obama says he’s not to blame for the state of the country, then he’s conceded weakness and impotence, and if he tries to echo the public desire for new directions, then he acknowledges that his controversial policies of the last four years never worked as intended.
No wonder the Democrats want to talk about political mechanics, citing the latest scraps of information suggesting the president’s looking strong in Virginia or Ohio rather than facing the administration’s disastrous deficits, painfully high unemployment, and stalled economic growth. Most campaigns try to use crucial issues to influence public opinion on the state of the race, but the Obama team hopes to use public perceptions of the state of the race to sway the nation on the issues. They argue that the administration’s record on spending and job creation can’t possibly be as bad as it looks, since the president somehow maintains his competitive position in the polls and sustains the impression that he’s a prohibitive favorite for reelection.
The “Obama’s unbeatable” advocates also rely on a crucial and common assumption that’s based on appalling ignorance and willful distortion. If you ask a typical voter why he or she blithely assumes that the president will get the second term he seeks, the most common answer involves his status as the incumbent. According to this logic, the president will get reelected because sitting presidents almost always win. Conventional wisdom suggests that the American people feel a powerful instinct to follow Abraham Lincoln’s advice to avoid “switching horses in midstream.”
In fact, a consideration of past campaigns makes it clear that the conventional wisdom rests on intellectual laziness and flat-out blindness to the historical record.
Since the ratification of the Constitution, we’ve gone through 51 presidential elections with an incumbent eligible to run, and in 32 of those cases—some 63 percent—some other guy actually won the election. In other words, the history of the presidency gives no indication at all that the man in the White House counts as a near automatic winner.
Many of those incumbents who failed to capture an additional term chose not to run at all: two of them (James K. Polk and Rutherford B. Hayes) because they’d pledged to serve only a single term; four of them (John Tyler, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Woodrow Wilson) because their profound unpopularity at the end of their terms made another presidential campaign all but unthinkable; and nine of them because they chose to follow the informal tradition established by Washington and avoid seeking a third term.
Of the 34 who went to the voters and made an attempt to return to the White House, 19 succeeded and 15 failed—hardly a record of all-but-assured success. Nor is the mixed performance a relic of the distant past: of the last six candidates to run for the presidency as White House incumbents, three succeeded (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush) while three failed (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush).
Democrats should ask themselves whether President Obama bears a stronger resemblance to the three recent winners or the three recent losers. In terms of his economic situation, the unemployment rate is much higher, and the growth rate much lower than for any of the second-term winners in the last 40 years—and also far worse than for one of the second-term losers (the first President Bush). As far as temperament is considered, Barack Obama hardly comes across as a genial, sunny, easy-going people-pleaser like Reagan, Clinton, or even George W.—let alone recapturing the unshakable optimism of his hero, FDR. His dour personality may fit the national mood of the moment, but with his slashingly negative campaigning and inveterate blame-gaming, he hardly contributes to lifting the gloom. The tightly wound, suffering-servant aura that has clung to his presidency at least since the 2010 GOP landslide, links him far more closely to the electorally challenged trio of Ford, Carter, and Bush I than to the irresistible cheerfulness of the successfully reelected recent incumbents.
At the same time, serious consideration of the historical precedents established by all two-term presidents over the course of 220 years suggests an iron rule of special relevance to the current Obama campaign.
From the dawn of the republic, no president has ever won consecutive terms while drawing less support (in both the electoral college and the popular vote) in his second bid for election than he did in the first successful campaign. In other words, presidents who win reelection manage to earn more backers, not more opponents, during their first four years in the White House. If, on the other hand, their critics multiply and the pool of admirers shrinks in response to their record of leadership, the embattled president always loses. When some significant portion of the voters who backed a president the first time now feel disillusioned and join the opposition (or stay home), and if the incumbent can’t replace these losses with comparable gains from people who rejected him four years before, it’s an indication of a failed presidency.
Those who doubt the relevance of this rule to the present race should address a revealing question: what’s more common in today’s public discourse—people who say they voted for Barack Obama but now feel disappointed and betrayed, or voices declaring that they backed John McCain four years ago but now support the president because they’re inspired by the magnificent job he’s done?
Even Obama and his top advisers acknowledge the obvious fact that more Americans feel let down by his leadership than pleasantly surprised. Team Obama has often declared the election of 2012 will prove “even closer” than the contest of 2008, and history indicates that this amounts to a de facto recognition of likely defeat.
The second unbroken rule of two-term presidents shows that all reelected chief executives achieved far less success, and attracted far more trouble, in term two than in term one. This pattern applies even to our greatest and most luminous leaders of the past, very much including Washington, Jefferson, FDR, and Reagan. If this unvaried precedent holds true for Obama, then voters should discard any hope for some magical, mystical improvement in his leadership abilities or his record of achievement. History offers no encouragement whatever for those who daydream that an encore for the Obama era between 2013 and 2017 will produce more reassuring results than the painfully rocky path the nation has traveled since 2009. If you’ve been even slightly dissatisfied by his first four years, the pattern of past administrations suggests that an encore would prove inevitably worse. And most Americans feel more than slightly dissatisfied by federal performance since 2009.
Sooner or later the conversation will inevitably come back to the core question of whether the public wants a change of course or prefers to select more of the same.
The latest smears and distractions will begin to fade into irrelevance after the selection of the very substantive Paul Ryan as Romney's running mate, and certainly won’t dominate the discussion after the conventions and the debates. As the leaves turn this autumn, the back-to-school chill in the air signifies a return to serious business—both for vacationing schoolchildren and grandstanding politicians.
And when the time comes that the public begins to reconnect the sorry state of the nation with the available choices in leadership, neither common sense nor historical precedent indicates that Barack Obama counts as a prohibitive favorite. Both past and present suggest that the future will make him a likely loser.