Whatever his failings, the president is likeable enough -- and incumbency is a powerful home-court advantage.
- By Aaron David MillerAaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.
I love presidential trivia. And here’s a piece that’s going to make all the true believers gathered this week in Charlotte happy.
Should Barack Obama be reelected this November, it will be only the second time in American history we’ve had three two-term presidents in a row. You have to go way back — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — to ferret out the first and only such presidential trio.
Big deal, you say. Isn’t this just another one of those mindless bits of presidential 411 that don’t add up to much — or anything at all? And the presidential scholars and political scientists who do this stuff for a living might agree with you, writing this trend off as irrelevant.
After all, what could we possibly conclude from a set of three presidents — in this case, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama? A set of three can’t have any statistical or empirical validity or relevance, can it?
Probably not. But I still think it holds the key to why Obama is likely to be reelected. And here’s why I think this is one of the more meaningful bits of info cluttering up the presidential trivia attic.
First, incumbents have a big advantage, particularly against a weaker rival. With all of the bells and whistles of the modern presidency, and the respect, however grudging, most Americans continue to show toward the leader of the free world, running for president from the White House instead of a campaign bus in Iowa helps a lot.
After all, it isn’t for nothing that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the real presidency — The West Wing — once described the White House as the greatest home-court advantage in the world. Since 1980 — that’s 30-plus years, folks — only one American president (still one of my favorites, though, George H.W. Bush) failed to gain a second term.
Second, presidents who are likeable, sentient beings have the edge. Clinton’s political skills rivaled Reagan’s; George W. Bush’s regular-guy image trumped Al Gore’s stiff public persona. And while Obama can be too professorial and detached — both compared with Mitt Romney and in his own right — he’s a natural on the stump.
But it’s more than that. Our politics are in crisis — driven by deep political divisions, a dysfunctional Congress, and a 24/7 media that both mirrors and perpetuate the circus-like atmosphere that is the American political arena. We are uncertain, worried, and anxious about the economy and our nation’s future.
As we watch all of this craziness in our politics, we crave not just certainty and stability, but hope as well. And so we seek out a measure of that stability in the only national institution that all Americans help shape — the presidency.
Indeed the presidency has become the last bastion and repository of our willingness to give second chances in the hope that somehow things will get better. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were reelected for very different reasons, but both received this benefit of the doubt: Clinton gained a second term despite character issues because economic times were good; Bush was reelected because he showed strength and character in the wake of 9/11, when times were bad.
Neither commander in chief will ever get into the presidential hall of fame. They were deeply flawed and imperfect men. And they were not great presidents, even though at times they could be great at being president.
If those two leaders could be reelected, it is not a stretch to believe that Barack Obama will ultimately prevail over Mitt Romney. Our current president will benefit from this trend — and despite their disappointment with many aspects of his performance, enough Americans will stay with a likeable if only slightly above average president who was dealt a very tough hand.
Whether or not this is the best thing for the country remains an open question. But given the impossible challenges we confront and our dearth of national leaders, it may well be the way Americans will now choose their presidents.
So Mr. President, your remark to Diane Sawyer in January 2010 — that you’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre eight-year man — isn’t happening. Your challenge is going to be to avoid being a mediocre two-termer.