Will Obama Down the Democrats in 2016?

Struggling presidents tend to poison their parties' presidential prospects.

President Obama is having a rough second term. His poll numbers are down; the economy remains stuck in first gear; and he looks increasingly hapless as a world leader. Commentators and politicians are beginning to wonder if his low standing with the American people will bring down Democrats in this year’s congressional elections. A bigger question is whether the president’s party can survive his second-term record and retain the White House following the 2016 election.

It’s time for a little historical perspective on presidential second terms. Not all presidents get reelected, of course, because it isn’t easy amassing a four-year record that justifies, in the collective assessment of voters, retention in office. Of the country’s forty-four presidents, just twenty-one served two terms or partial terms, including those who ascended to the presidency upon the death of their predecessors and then were elected in their own right (Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge); and those who were elected twice but didn’t survive their second terms (Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley). (This list also includes, of course, Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected four times; but the Constitution’s 22nd Amendment now precludes presidential tenure beyond two terms.)

These twenty-one presidents fall into two categories: those whose second terms were succeeded by a president of their own party; and those whose party lost the White House after their presidential time was up. This distinction is particularly noteworthy if one accepts the view of presidential elections that I have put forward in recent years—namely, that they are largely referendums on the incumbent or incumbent party. Opinion is divided on this among political scientists, but there is a strong correlation between second-term performance (as viewed by both voters and historians) and party retention of the White House.

Of the twenty presidents (excluding Obama) who served two terms or partial terms, twelve were succeeded by a president of their own party. In nearly all instances, their second terms were strong by most objective measures. (The outlier would be Ulysses Grant, whose second term was beset by major scandal and economic difficulties, but the GOP retained the White House after his tenure only through manipulations of the Electoral College vote in Southern states under federal Reconstruction.)

Of the eight who presided over their party’s loss of the White House (those I call “split decision” presidents), six had disastrous second terms. These include Grover Cleveland, who served two nonconsecutive terms followed in each instance by party turnover, thus becoming the country’s only two-time one-termer; Woodrow Wilson, who manipulated America into World War I and mismanaged the war effort in ways that brought on a major recession, assaulted civil liberties, and intruded the federal government into the economy far beyond the comfort level of most Americans; Harry Truman, who had a heroic first term but whose second term was characterized by a sputtering economy, petty corruption by St. Louis cronies given federal jobs for which they were unqualified, and a war he couldn’t win and couldn’t end; Lyndon Johnson, whose Vietnam fiasco destroyed his political standing; Richard Nixon, whose Watergate transgressions destroyed his presidency; and George W. Bush, who came to be viewed as a failed war president with tendencies toward fiscal irresponsibility and who presided over the onset of the country’s worst economic dislocation since the Great Depression.

The other two—Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton—logged second-term records only slightly less successful than their first terms, but their second terms weren’t quite sufficient to prevent party turnovers in two of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history.

In the context of this background, let’s turn our attention back to Obama, whose approval rating in the latest Gallup poll was just 40 percent, compared to an average of 49 percent for all second-term presidents at this point in their presidencies. This is close to the 37 percent at this point for George W. Bush and Harry Truman, both of whom presided over their party’s loss of the White House by substantial margins.

A look at internal poll numbers renders an even more ominous picture. A study of various surveys by the American Enterprise Institute indicates that only 50 percent of Americans view Obama as a strong leader, while only 43 percent consider him a man who can “get things done.” He is viewed as trustworthy by 52 percent; at the beginning of his presidency, he was considered trustworthy by 75 percent of Americans.

These numbers reflect actual performance indices. Gross Domestic Product growth during the Obama presidency has averaged just 1.53 percent a year, compared to an annual average growth rate of 3.405 percent during the last two decades of the twentieth century. The George W. Bush performance wasn’t much better—just 1.67 percent a year over his eight years—whose second term precluded a GOP succession.

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