For those Americans who loathe and fear the current incumbent (some 30 percent of the electorate, according to most reckonings), the best news about 2012 is they assume it’s the last time they’ll have to deal with Barack Obama in presidential politics.
“Whether the jerk wins or loses in November of next year,” gleefully noted one of my stalwart conservative friends, “at least we know the name ‘Obama’ will never, ever show up again on a national ballot.”
I told him not to feel so confident about the president’s imminent disappearance from the scene; in fact, a flurry of revealing White House gossip combines with strategic common sense to suggest that regardless of the result of next year’s election, the Democratic nominee in 2016 will likely bear a familiar last name beginning with ‘O’ and ending with “ma.”
Most obviously, if Barack Obama loses his bid for a second term he will almost certainly “pull a Grover” and run to recapture the White House four years later.
In 1888, Democrat Grover Cleveland narrowly lost his re-election campaign to the GOP’s Benjamin Harrison (he actually beat the Republican in the popular vote, 48.6 to 47.8 percent, but Harrison carried the state of New York and with it won the Electoral College). Just 51 years old when he suffered this heart-breaking defeat, “Grover the Good” began planning his comeback before he even left the White House. While bidding farewell to the executive mansion staff on inauguration day, the glamorous and popular first lady, Frances Folsom Cleveland, told the head butler: “Now, Jerry, I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again…We are coming back four years from today.” Sure enough, in 1892 former President Cleveland seized his party’s nomination against feeble and divided opposition and swept to decisive victory over the hapless Harrison, becoming the only president to serve non-consecutive terms.
Can anyone reasonably doubt that in the event that Obama goes down to defeat in 2012 he would seek to follow Grover’s example in 2016?
For one thing, he’d be exactly the same age as Cleveland—only 55 when he waged his comeback campaign to return to the White House. Other presidents who lost re-election bids after a single term (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush) never tried to recapture their parties’ nominations; they either suffered such humiliating defeats or left their parties so badly and bitterly divided, that retirement from presidential politics seemed almost mandatory.
For Obama, however, that sort of landslide defeat looks highly unlikely, and even if he did lose decisively, it’s virtually inconceivable that he’d surrender his power base within the Democratic coalition. His historic position as the first-ever African-American president should allow him to continue to command near-unanimous support from the black community—a segment of the party that represents up to 30 percent of Democratic primary voters and makes Obama the prohibitive favorite in any nomination struggle.
The same political calculus would make Michelle Obama a formidable competitor to head the 2016 ticket if, as she and her husband ardently expect, he wins a second term in 2012.
In private conversation, some Democratic insiders have suggested that the president’s prime appointments and defensive political maneuvers have not only removed potential rivals to his undisputed power within the party but also cleared the field for his wife if she decided to make the race. According to these admittedly speculative scenarios, Barack would appoint Michelle to some highly visible but non-controversial public position (U.N. ambassador comes easily to mind) in the middle of his second term and would work behind the scenes to line up support for her ambitions. In a sense, this strategy would help him avoid the “lame duck” curse that regularly afflicts even the most successful presidents in their second terms; Washington’s power players couldn’t afford to disregard Barack Obama for a moment if his wife stood a real chance of succeeding him in the White House.
It is hardly lost on the self-assured, energetic, and unmistakably ambitious first lady that her predecessor Hillary Clinton used her own high profile position as wife of the president to become a thoroughly credible candidate for the nation’s highest office. Michelle’s admirers will tell you instantly that Mrs. Obama (with her Princeton and Harvard degrees, and her prominence in corporate Chicago) was a more successful and powerful attorney than was Mrs. Clinton in remote Little Rock, and she is also a vastly more popular first lady. Hillary’s chief project as the president’s spouse was Hillarycare, which crashed and burned and almost wrecked the administration; Michelle’s main focus has been childhood obesity, a non-polarizing cause that draws near unanimous support. “She’s not only more liked and respected than Hillary was; she’s more popular than Barack is,” says one veteran Democratic consultant. “If you see them in a room together, she’s a much more natural, more effective politician. All the energy goes to her, not him. People feel naturally drawn to her warmth but he’s famous for being cool and remote.”
Who, exactly, could challenge Michelle Obama for the 2016 nomination if she decided to pursue it?
The aging and preternaturally goofy Joe Biden (he’ll be 74)? Secretary of State Clinton (who says she won’t ever run for president again and looks honestly weary of public life)? Howlin’ Howie Dean? John Edwards (if he’s out of jail)? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (a more realistic possibility if he maintains his sure-footed leadership in Albany)?
None of these contenders could rival the visceral appeal of a storyline centered on husband-and-wife barrier breakers: he shatters the tradition of whites-only nominees, she breaks the rule of male-only nominees.
Yes, it’s possible that Michelle Obama would choose to follow a more conventional path to the presidency (as did Hillary) and run for a less prominent office in 2016 to set up a future White House campaign. There’s already been some conversation about winning back her husband’s former Senate seat in Illinois by challenging moderate Republican Mark Kirk when he goes for his second term five years from now. There’s also the chance that a disappointing second term performance by this president would make any Obama candidacy in 2016 implausible, just as the unpopularity of George W. Bush ruled out any immediate presidential drive by his brother Jeb.
But if Barack Obama prepares to leave the White House as a reasonably popular and respected figure, why would his wife wait for the glow to fade?
Whether she runs in 2016, or 2020, or 2024 (she’d only be 60 years old), Michelle Obama will likely play a role in future White House battles.
And if he wins re-election, or especially if he loses and seeks redemption and restoration four years later, Barack Obama will continue to play a prominent if not dominant role in presidential politics. Those of us who distrust his leadership and bemoan his record need to allow a bit of reasoned realism to temper our premature celebration over his impending departure from center stage.