The odds against a presidential three-peat
History demonstrates Democrats face a tough task in 2016
Republicans looking ahead to 2016 take heart: History is on your side. For more than a century, only twice has a party held the White House for at least three consecutive presidential elections. Both times, it took each party’s greatest president of this period — Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan — to accomplished the feat. That fact should be a major concern to Democrats, who will be seeking their party’s third consecutive term on President Obama’s record.
In 1896, 1900, 1904 and 1908, Republicans William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft won four consecutive presidential elections. Since then, only FDR and Harry Truman, and Reagan and George H.W. Bush have won at least three consecutive presidential elections. Next year, Democrats will seek to do it for only the third time in just over a century.
To appreciate how hard a three-peat is, look at the circumstances in which it has happened.
FDR did it by himself, simultaneously winning his party’s third consecutive election in 1940. FDR would go on to win another in 1944, and Truman a fifth in 1948.
To put together this run required no less than the nation to be in the Great Depression and have World War II raging in 1940, to have America deeply immersed in the war in 1944, and in 1948, to have finally having won the war and FDR popularly credited with ending the Depression. Since then, the ability to accomplish a three-peat single-handedly has been foreclosed by the Constitution’s 22nd Amendment.
Reagan and Bush I did it again four decades later under remarkably similar circumstances. Reagan took office with America’s economy and foreign affairs in a shambles. During his tenure, Reagan restored both — presiding over a tremendous economic recovery, driving the USSR to its knees, and leaving America the world’s sole superpower.
Peace and prosperity propel any president. But to lift them out of the depths is the pinnacle of presidential accomplishment. To say that FDR and Reagan were popular is an understatement. Both would be on any objective short list of great presidents. Their successors, Truman and Bush I, were their direct beneficiaries — with Truman actually already in the White House due to FDR’s death when he won in 1948.
Today’s circumstances could hardly be more different. While FDR and Reagan could point to sweeping accomplishments at home and abroad, Mr. Obama can claim neither. In fact, the very opposite prevails.
For six years, the economy has been a major disappointment. Abroad, America’s situation seems to grow worse by the day. As a result, Mr. Obama is unpopular — his approval ratings consistently polling below 50 percent for some time — and his signature initiative, Obamacare, even lower.
The circumstances surrounding potential successors to win a third consecutive term for Democrats are equally dismal. Joe Biden is the vice president, as were Truman and Bush I, but he is given little real chance of winning his party’s nomination. Front-runner Hillary Clinton is associated with foreign policy, but it is arguably the Obama administration’s weakest area at present.
How political fortunes may change over the next two years is impossible to say, but it appears clear that Mr. Obama’s actions will be greatly limited by the opposition of a Republican-controlled Congress.
Put into historical context, Democrats are seeking to do what has only been done twice in the last century. And each party needed their greatest president of the period to accomplish it.
Instead of today’s focus on 2016 contenders, history tells us to look at the White House’s current occupant. Truman and Bush I were both good men and proved to be good presidents. However, it is unlikely that either would have become president on his own. Their predecessors more than paved their way to the White House.
Compared to Truman and Bush I, the last two men to fail to convert a third term for their party — Al Gore in 2000 and John McCain in 2008 — were also good men. Neither was particularly less qualified on paper than Truman or Bush I.
How Mr. Gore and Mr. McCain would have performed as president we will never know. What we do know is that the shortcomings of their presidential predecessors hurt their chances to win the White House — perhaps fatally.
Nearly two years away from the next presidential election, we also know this: Mr. Obama more closely resembles the presidents who could not pass on the torch than the two political giants of the last century who could. Therefore, it is likely that an important determinant of 2016’s outcome is not the performance of the contenders vying for the White House but of its current occupant. J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.