In the last 100 years, every U.S. president who lost his bid for a second term did so because he abandoned his principal promise to the American people. If Republicans can persuade the public that Barack Obama similarly shattered the pledge at the very core of his presidency, they will succeed in denying him the new lease on the White House he insists he deserves.
Four elected chief executives in the past century failed in their reelection campaigns—and each of them flopped by landslide margins. For William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992, broken promises doomed their chances for another four-year term.
Taft, Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, based his first presidential campaign on guarantees that he would continue the popular policies of his ebullient predecessor, but voters in 1912 knew they’d been betrayed because TR himself came out of retirement to tell them so! Roosevelt not only challenged Taft for re-nomination but ultimately conducted his third-party “Bull Moose” campaign, handing victory to Democrat Woodrow Wilson and pushing the incumbent to a paltry 23 percent of the popular vote.
In 1928, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover ran as the prosperity candidate, deploying the sonorous slogan, “A Chicken in Every Pot, a Car in Every Garage.” The Great Depression smashed his optimistic assurances and helped FDR carry 42 of 48 states.
After the sleaze and polarization of the Nixon administration, a nation weary of Watergate turned to a youthful, deeply religious Georgia governor who titled his campaign autobiography Why Not the Best? As a former officer on nuclear submarines, Jimmy Carter ran as a sure-handed technocrat who offered the explicit promise of “a government as good as its people.” After three years of economic meltdown, a seemingly endless hostage crisis, and self-defeating talk of malaise, that cheerful vow sounded laughably quaint, and Carter fell by 8.4 million votes to Ronald Reagan.
Finally, in 1988 Vice President George H.W. Bush escaped the nagging “wimp” factor and electrified the GOP convention with an unequivocal declaration meant to evoke the steely resolve of Clint Eastwood. “Read my lips,” he snarled. “No new taxes!” Violating that well-publicized oath with a sharp increase in marginal tax rates literally wrecked his presidency: producing a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan, a formidable third-party candidacy by Ross Perot, and a lopsided November win for the young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
If Republicans want to see history repeat itself in 2012, with a once-popular incumbent turned out of office by a deeply disillusioned electorate, they must persuade the public that Barack Obama has continued the big-loser pattern of broken promises. That means reminding voters of the most important theme associated with his rise to power: the pledge to unify the nation and put aside petty, partisan differences. Whatever happens with the unemployment rate or gas prices, the president’s failure to live up to these assurances remains both painful and apparent.
In the speech that made him a national figure overnight, Illinois Senator Barack Obama gave the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. “Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people,” he intoned. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them…. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
In his Inaugural Address four-and-a-half years later, the newly elected president sounded strikingly similar themes. “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
Can even the most devoted Obama admirer plausibly claim that this new day of harmony and cooperation actually dawned in Washington?
Low approval ratings for all federal officials suggest that Americans recognize that the “conflict and discord” have become more bitter than ever before and that the president, despite his soaring rhetoric, plays a prominent part in the squabbling. He may attempt to blame conservatives exclusively for the small-minded gamesmanship, but he’s compiled his own long record of below-the-belt, straw-man attacks, sliming his opponents as greedy and corrupt, claiming that they place plutocrats and corporate power above the public welfare.
Instead of the fresh era of “unity of purpose,” President Obama must acknowledge that his signature legislative achievement, health-care reform, passed both houses of Congress without a single Republican vote, and led elected officials in the majority of states to challenge its constitutionality before the Supreme Court.
Yet even more tragically than his crushed hope of overcoming partisanship, Barack Obama has disappointed the public in the historic mission of transcending racial divisions. It may have been unrealistic to expect that election of the first black president would heal four centuries of racial strife, but that didn’t stop millions from rallying to banners of hope and to the intoxicating chant of “Yes We Can!”
In that context, no matter how eloquently the president speaks about the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the incident still serves to undermine the notion of his transformative leadership: racism remains a powerful, even paralyzing, presence in American life. To an embarrassing extent, Obama himself remains a racially divisive rather than unifying figure. According to March tracking polls by the Gallup organization, 85 percent of blacks approve of Obama’s job performance, but only 39 percent of whites do—an unprecedented difference of more than two-to-one.
When challenging Barack Obama’s claim on a second term, the Republicans should remind the American people why we entrusted him with the presidency in the first place. Beyond any specific expectations about jobs, taxes, and health care, the public welcomed the prospect of an end to the bickering with a new politics of common-sense reform.
The GOP candidate can expose the president’s spoiled promise by renewing the same pledge more credibly, and demonstrating in the campaign itself the coalition-building, pragmatism, and bipartisanship the people expected from the incumbent. Reinvigorated hope for unity and cooperation provides the best chance to highlight this president’s most fatal failure and to add his name to the melancholy list of discredited one-termers who broke faith with the American people.