Tag Archives: Obama reelection

Obama’s Victory And The Power of Incumbency In The Modern Era

A reporter recently emailed asking me to comment on the following observation: “This is the first time in American history since Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe that the United States has elected three consecutive presidents to two terms (Clinton, Bush, Obama). I was wondering if you had any thoughts regarding why there has been a gap of almost 200 years between the first and second occurrence of this?”  Those who were in attendance on Election Night at the Karl Rove Crossroads Cafe heard me reference this fact in the form of a trivia question.

And that’s largely what I think this is: trivia.  As I told the reporter, I think there’s much less here than meets the eye. That is, if you view this historical oddity as an indication of just how hard it is for a president to win reelection, you are likely misreading history.  In fact, if you look at the so-called “modern” presidential era which scholars typically date to the post-FDR period, one is struck by the power of incumbency. Indeed, the more surprising fact is that there are incumbents who lost their bid for reelection in this era.  Let’s run down the list:

There have been a dozen presidents in the post-FDR era.  Of these, all but Kennedy had an opportunity to run for reelection.  Among the remaining 11, only Ford, Carter and Bush I failed in their reelection bid.  Ford’s effort fell just short which, in retrospect, was an impressive performance given the Watergate-induced backlash against all things Republican in 1976.  Bush I’s 1992 reelection bid was undoubtedly negatively affected by the presence of a strong third-party candidate in the person of Ross Perot, who won nearly 20% of the popular vote.  To this day Bush believes Perot cost him reelection.  That leaves only Carter among the dozen who lost a straight up bid for reelection under “normal” political circumstances.

Put another way, if we “adjust” our calculations to address the modern presidents who initially took office by non-electoral means, the “gap” between Monroe and Obama seems much less meaningful. So, we can consider Truman, who took office less than three months into FDR’s final term, as essentially a two-term president.  Similarly, the eight years under JFK-LBJ, and the eight years under Nixon-Ford, can also be viewed as two-term presidencies, since neither Kennedy nor Nixon were removed by electoral defeat. From this perspective, it turns out that from 1944 through 1976 we saw four consecutive two-term presidents.  If we step back one administration, FDR makes it five-plus.  Viewed in this way, the real question becomes: how did Carter lose?

My point is that it is difficult to defeat a sitting president in the modern era.  Yes, I understand that both Truman and LBJ opted not to run again in part because of their electoral vulnerability, but both had won election in their own right at least one time. By comparison, if we look at the pre-FDR sitting presidents who won their party’s nomination, by my back-of-the-envelope calculation almost half – eight of 18 – went down to defeat in their first bid for reelection.

Why is it so difficult to defeat an incumbent president in the modern era?  One likely reason is that the office is much more visible, so that presidents simply by virtue of carrying out their duties in a non-partisan way, such as providing disaster relief, can score political points. It may also be the case that in an era of nuclear weapons and other WMD’s, the presidents’ foreign policy role enhances their political standing. That is, as national security issues loom larger in voters’ calculations, the incumbent president’s foreign policy role is magnified. Moreover, despite the criticisms his comments entailed, Romney was right when noted – albeit perhaps not in the most diplomatic manner – that Presidents are relatively well situated to influence policies in ways that reward key voting blocs. All this is somewhat speculative, of course, but I am persuaded, in the absence of countervailing evidence, that modern incumbents generally run for reelection with advantages that their premodern forebears did not possess.

A note to readers: the audience for  this blog has expanded considerably in the last year and for that I am very appreciative.  Thus it is with some regret that I am announcing that I will be posting much less frequently during the next several months.  I have a book deadline, and added administrative duties, that are cutting into my blogging time.  This is not to say I will stop posting completely – I’m still going to respond to the most egregious punditry errors (“Obama Won A Mandate!”  “Most Voters Want Unified Democratic Control!”), particularly when political science provides some insight and/or countervailing evidence.  And I’ll try to keep up with the major events affecting the presidency, but perhaps not quite as regularly as in the past.  Of course, I encourage you to submit questions – I will try to get to them in due time.  And, as always, I thank you for reading, and for participating in what are almost always very interesting discussions – and for not turning this site into still another partisan-driven echo chamber.  Lord knows we have enough of those out there already.

What History Suggests A Second Obama Term Might Look Like

The always interesting Ryan Lizza wrote a piece in the New Yorker three weeks ago speculating about what an Obama second term might look like.  Understandably, Lizza focuses on the policy initiatives that Obama might pursue in a second term, such as climate change legislation and restrictions on nuclear proliferation. As he notes, however, the window of opportunity for enacting significant legislation in the second term is quite limited; during the post-Herbert Hoover era, the president’s party loses about 30 House and seven Senate seats in the second-term midterm elections on average, and thereafter as lame duck status looms larger, the president’s influence wanes accordingly.   That means Obama’s best chance to achieve significant policy gain is likely to occur during the immediate 1 ½ years after reelection.

The second term, then, affords presidents one last but very limited opportunity to cement their historical legacy.  Toward this end, Lizza quotes Reagan aide Tom Korologos’ memo to the President on January 24, 1985, a few days after Reagan’s second inaugural, in which Korologos writes:  “It seems to me that the President needs to decide what his legacy is going to be… What is he going to be the most proud of when he’s sitting at the ranch with Nancy four and five years after his Presidency? Is it going to be an arms control agreement? Is it going to be a balanced budget? Is it going to be world-wide economic recovery? Is it going to be a combination of all of this: peace and prosperity? . . . Every speech; every appearance; every foreign trip; every congressional phone call and every act involving the President should be made with the long-range goal in mind.”

What Korogolos’ memo doesn’t say, however – and what Lizza does not directly address – is that the combination of a reduced window of opportunity to enact policy and political change combined with an overwhelming desire to enhance one’s presidential legacy can prove politically lethal.  The reason is that without the need to worry about reelection, presidents and their senior aides often demonstrate a reduced political sensitivity during their second term. This has two ramifications.  First, they tend to pursue major policies or political goals without fully grasping the political constraints that limit one’s ability to achieve those objectives.  Second, they are more prone to scandal rooted in the less savory aspects of presidential personalities.

On the policy side, George W. Bush conceded in his memoirs that his decision to pursue Social Security reform to start his second term was a mistake.  In his first press conference after winning reelection, Bush famously remarked, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”  For his first major policy purchase, he chose social security reform.  As he notes in his memoirs, “For someone asking to take on big issues, it didn’t get much bigger than reforming Social Security.”  Alas, legislation reforming Social Security went nowhere in Congress, stymied by a combination of Democratic opposition and tepid Republican support.  In retrospect, Bush lamented his decision to go big: “On Social Security, I may have misread the electoral mandate by pushing for an issue on which there had been little bipartisan agreement in the first place.”  Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but Bush believes now that he should have pushed for immigration, rather than Social Security, reform as his first major initiative of the second term because the former had bipartisan support.

Bush’s failure to reform Social Security is a reminder that the constraints governing presidential power are not rescinded in the second term – indeed, they loom even larger.  This was a lesson learned by Ronald Reagan, who shortly after reelection in 1984 signed onto a plan hatched by his CIA director and national security staff that, in effect, became an effort to trade arms for the release of Americans held hostage by Mideast terrorist groups – this despite his longstanding pledge to never negotiate with terrorists.  Reagan apparently broke that pledge after a meeting with the hostages’ families, who pleaded with him to do something to earn the hostages’ release, but he did so by convincing himself that he wasn’t really trading arms for hostages, since the initial arms shipments came from Israel, and it didn’t go directly to the groups holding the hostages.   When the details of that initiative and the other actions it spawned, including sending residuals from the arms sales to fund the Nicaraguan contras, finally came to light – as they inevitably had to – they triggered a public outcry that led to congressional hearings and a steep drop in public support for Reagan.  Again, while well-intentioned, Reagan’s decision to pursue the arms-for-hostage initiative betrayed a stunning loss of political sensitivity.

I could cite other second-term political missteps, including FDR’s infamous 1937 court-packing plan and his failed effort to purge conservative Democrats from power by intervening in the 1938 midterm races.  While it is true that FDR was eligible to run for a third term at this time, all indications are that he planned on abiding by the strong two-term tradition followed by almost all his predecessors. Eisenhower’s decision to authorize a U-2 flight over the Soviet Union, and his reaction when it was shot down in 1960 on the eve of a planned four-power summit including Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev might also fall in this category.

But second-term presidents are not just prone to policy missteps – history suggests that are also more vulnerable to political scandal rooted in their own personal peccadilloes.  Most recently, of course, Bill Clinton’s reckless personal behavior with Monica Lewinsky led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives – an event that left a permanent stain on his presidency (as well as on her blue dress!) Not coincidentally, I believe, their relationship began in November, 1985, after his reelection to a second term.  Again, it is hard to explain Clinton’s behavior beyond attributing it to a combination of recklessness and hubris.

Finally, there is Watergate.  Although the seeds of this scandal were planted in 1972, with the break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, Nixon’s effort to cover-up his initial knowledge of the break-in extended well into his second term.  Those efforts, when uncovered, forced him to step down as president in August, 1974 so as not to face almost certain impeachment and conviction on obstruction of justice charges. In engaging in an extensive cover-up, of course, Nixon’s obsession with secrecy and destroying his political enemies turned a third-rate burglary of little significance into perhaps the biggest presidential scandal of all.

We see, then, that each of the last four presidents to win reelection experienced either a major policy failure or political scandal during their second term.  This may be sheer coincidence.  But it may also be that in each case, a major contributing factor was a loss of political sensitivity.  Simply put, these presidents overestimated their own power, and underestimated the constraints limiting what they could reasonably expect to accomplish, or the penalties they would pay by operating outside those constraints.  I can’t be sure, but I believe a contributing factor in each of these missteps is that as second-term presidents, they no longer worried so much about the electoral ramifications of their actions.  Instead, in some cases their desire to enhance their legacy led to policy overreach.  In others, presidents acted on base impulses that were previously held in check by political considerations.

This is not to say that Obama’s second term will be inevitably scarred by policy overreach, or scandal, or both.  But any analysis of what to expect must acknowledge the historical record in this regard.   And that record is not pretty.  If Obama does win reelection, where might the equivalent overreach take place?  One precipitating issue might be the tax hikes and spending cuts now scheduled to kick in at the start of 2013.  If Obama decides this time not to cut a deal with Republicans, and instead to hold out for his fiscal preferences, the resulting deadlock could lead to a stiff increase in taxes and concomitant drop in federal spending that could trigger another economic recession.  Despite this possibility, Obama might be tempted to play hardball, reasoning that blame would fall on the Republicans and that this would be a major down payment on the budget deficit.  Soon after, in February 2013, the government may face another debt limit crisis, and another round of brinkmanship could occur.   On the other hand, Obama may again demonstrate the political pragmatism that has characterized his presidency to date and cut another deal with Republicans.  His choices in these matters will depend in no small part on how the 2012 election turns out, not just in terms of his margin of victory (which as of now appears likely to be quite narrow), but more importantly in how well Democrats do in the House and Senate.

No matter what the electoral results, however, Obama would do well to remember the history of past presidents who won a second term in office.  Victory does not lessen – never mind remove – the constitutional, institutional and political constraints that make the presidency such a weak office.  Indeed, as a second-term president, Obama is likely to wield less influence, and to have a shorter window with which to enact change, than he did during his first four years.