The Incumbency Myth: Is It Really Easier for an Incumbent to Win?
The Dow Jones Average recently climbed back above 13,000 for the first time since 2008. Meanwhile, the nation’s unemployment rate continues on its generally downward trend, and some economists suggest that the Great Recession may be at an end.
This is good news for President Barack Obama, who faces a reelection bid against a group of Republican rivals with varying degrees of electability. Recent polls show that, if the election were held right now, Obama would handily defeat all the current contenders for the Republican nomination. At the same time, only about 40 percent of Americans approve of the way Obama is doing his job—and 45 percent think the economy is becoming worse instead of better.
The conventional wisdom is that an incumbent president has a huge advantage over his rivals. However, of the 43 presidents who preceded Obama, only 15, or more than one-third, failed to win a second term. And this figure does not include the three elected presidents—James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Rutherford B. Hayes—who chose not to run again. It does, however, include three vice presidents—John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur—who succeeded to the office, but failed to receive their party’s support to run on their own.
If we consider only those elected presidents who sought a second term, the odds are even more ominous. Starting with the nation’s second president John Adams, who was defeated for reelection by Thomas Jefferson, 10 elected presidents have failed to achieve a second term. They include John Quincy Adams, who shared his father’s fate as “one and done” in 1828, and Grover Cleveland, who was booted from office by Benjamin Harrison in 1888, but took the White House again in 1892.
In 1912, when Republicans nominated William Howard Taft for a second term, his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, who had been a Republican president, left the party and joined the Progressives. American voters had different ideas that year and elected Woodrow Wilson, the first Democratic president in almost two decades.
“It’s the economy, stupid!”
A tough economy has ended more than one reelection bid. In the aftermath of the financial panic of 1837, Martin Van Buren lost to William Henry Harrison. Herbert Hoover—whose presidency marked the nation’s slide into the Great Depression—as well as Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush all lost second terms due to a poor economy.
The fates of Jimmy Carter and Bush 41 (to distinguish him from his son George W. Bush, the 43rd president) provide even greater pause. Carter and Obama have each presided over slow economies. Both are widely recognized for their intelligence, but each has been criticized for lacking leadership skills and political experience. For Carter, the result was a lost second term and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
After the defeat of Iraq in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Bush 41’s reelection seemed assured. Several leading Democratic candidates declined to take him on. But Bush could not withstand a faltering economy and high deficit spending, and he was defeated by lightly-regarded Arkansas governor Bill Clinton.
All too soon, however, the glow of Clinton’s victory had worn off as voters felt the effects of a lingering recession. Clinton’s winning campaign theme emphasized economic recovery—“It’s the economy, stupid!”—and many Republicans are hoping that this message will be just as effective for them this year. Clinton also faced high unemployment figures as does Obama. The president’s recent promise of a “possible” 8 percent unemployment rate by Election Day 2012 sounds cautious at best. To continue the Clinton-Obama comparison, the national economy is expected to grow this year at only half the rate it did in 1992.
“The buck stops here.”
Despite our system of checks and balances and separation of powers, many people think of the president as a CEO. He is the titular and visible head of a “company” called the United States of America, and what happens on his watch is viewed as success or failure, regardless of who or what is responsible. Harry Truman recognized this when he placed a sign on his Oval Office desk that read “The buck stops here.” That wisdom could be as true today as it was in 1948.