The odds against a pres­i­den­tial three-peat

His­tory demon­strates Democrats face a tough task in 2016

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By J.T. Young

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.

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