As he campaigns for reelection, Barack Obama pursues a profound and uncommon honor denied to nearly two-thirds of his predecessors. Contrary to a widely held popular belief, political history doesn’t anoint incumbent presidents as automatic winners or even presumptive favorites. The numbers show that most presidents fail in their efforts to maintain a long-term hold on the affections of the fickle public and that Obama will face an uphill struggle in attempting to reprise his epic victory of 2008.
Of the 42 men who served as president before the current incumbent, only 15 won two consecutive elections.
Among the others, five died during their first terms, seven incumbents declined to run, five tried but failed to win their party’s nomination, and 10 won the nomination but lost their bids for reelection. What’s more, three former presidents (Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, and Theodore Roosevelt) attempted to make comebacks and roared out of retirement as third-party candidates; all three failed miserably in November, winning between 10 and 27 percent of the popular vote.
The numbers look even worse for second terms if you remove the early “cocked hat” presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe), who easily won reelection before the emergence of the modern two-party system. Washington and Monroe, for instance, both eased into second terms without campaigning and without facing even token opposition. With these early chief executives withdrawn from the equation, 70 percent of those who have served as president since 1825 (26 of 37) failed to win two consecutive terms.
Some of these one-termers counted as obvious failures, rejected by big majorities of their contemporaries and winning scant respect from historians. Even at the time, no one expected John Tyler, James Buchanan, or Andrew Johnson to renew their leases on the White House. But other presidents who lost bids for a second term played big roles in history and have earned many admirers throughout the generations. If Barack Obama fails in his bid for reelection, he will join such estimable predecessors as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland (who came back from his second-term loss to win a non-consecutive victory), William Howard Taft (who returned to Washington as chief justice of the Supreme Court), and George Herbert Walker Bush.
Moreover, two powerful presidents generally labeled “great” or “near great” by historians found themselves nonetheless thwarted in their ambitions to win reelection. Both Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson served as vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency upon the death of wildly popular incumbents (Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy), then won a full term in their own right. Widely expected to seek reelection, both men fared poorly in early primaries (Truman actually lost in New Hampshire in 1952 to the little-known Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver) before withdrawing as candidates—and insisting that they’d intended to withdraw all along.
Of the 15 presidents who won two consecutive terms (or four consecutive terms, in the case of FDR), nearly all of them count as historical giants and successful, significant chief executives. The only two arguable exceptions would be Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77) and George W. Bush (2001-09), and prominent academics have recently led a major resurgence in Grant’s historical reputation while Bush admirers await a similar reevaluation for that undeservedly reviled war leader.
In considering the chances for Obama’s reelection, it’s obvious that he doesn’t count as either a sure loser with a thin or nonexistent list of accomplishments, nor does he qualify as an obvious winner with a Rushmore-ready profile and a résumé of immortal achievements. In other words, President Obama won’t experience the resounding rejection that doomed the reelection hopes of Franklin Pierce, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter, nor will he register the inspiring vote of confidence that gave Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, Ike, and Reagan back-to-back victories.
Despite the attempt at apotheosis by the glowing new, Tom Hanks-narrated documentary The Road We Have Traveled, Barack Obama can’t run as that sort of triumphant titan; nor need he hide as the feckless, dreary disgrace of conservative propaganda. He clearly occupies some middle ground among first-termers, suggesting a fierce, closely contested battle against his all-but-certain opponent, Mitt Romney.
The long, sour, discouraging GOP primary battle has produced soaring Democratic hopes that the public will overcome all doubts and embrace Obama due to fear and loathing of the Republican alternative. But the inevitable course of the reelection struggle will make the race a referendum on whether the public wants another four years like those they’ve just experienced. Clearly this particular race could go either way, but history shows that whenever once-elected presidents seek a second chance, more often than not the people say no.