Will Obama Down the Democrats in 2016?

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.

Then there is the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, which ranks among the worst domestic-policy fiascos in the country’s history. Democrats facing this year’s midterm elections are searching for a good way to finesse the issue with voters in their states and districts. There isn’t one. Obama himself has sought to take the edge off by delaying various troublesome provisions, which only reveals the law’s underlying problems and the political panic among Democrats. Parties that demonstrate a fear of the voters rarely do well at the next election.

Finally, Obama’s foreign-policy record reveals a fateful lack of strategic coherence. He extricated the country from Iraq, as the American people wanted him to do, and he’s trying to do the same in Afghanistan. But he has made no effort to replace these tattered military initiatives with any kind of comprehensive foreign policy, one that can guide his actions under a rubric that can be explained and defended to the American people. He doesn’t want to get involved in Syria; then he does; then he doesn’t.

Though he’s reluctant to get involved militarily in more Middle Eastern countries, he makes an exception with Libya, with whose leader America and the West had an agreement. It was that, if Muammar Qaddafi would give up his nuclear ambitions and stop promoting terrorism, America would leave him alone. He lived up to the agreement; America, under Obama, didn’t.

The president allowed top diplomatic officials to get involved in efforts to wrest Ukraine from Russia’s strategic sphere of influence, then acted outraged and shocked when Russia’s Vladimir Putin reacted as any national leader would in such circumstances. In the process, he jeopardized major initiatives that need Russian assistance, particularly the delicate efforts to negotiate a nonproliferation agreement with Iran (a matter that’s far more important than the fate of Crimea) and the long-term question of the China challenge in East Asia.

What it all adds up to is a president who is winging it on foreign policy at a time when the geopolitical challenges facing America are mounting and becoming more ominous. The American people see it. A recent CNN-ORC International survey indicated that 57 percent of Americans believe other nations no longer respect the U.S. president. A Washington Post-ABC survey showed only 47 percent of respondents approve of his foreign policy, while 45 percent disapprove.

Can Obama turn all this around in time to save his second term and bring about his party’s White House retention after he leaves office in 2017? It probably isn’t impossible, but it doesn’t seem likely, given the forces arrayed against him, his low station in voter esteem, the problems he has helped create and the haphazard nature of his leadership. Most likely he will be one of those split-decision presidents who hand over the White House to the political opposition after his second term.

Robert W. Merry is the political editor of The National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.