The Age Of Perennial Two-Termers

In reaction to discussions of potential 2012 (R) challengers to President Obama, I can only say that I fully expect President Obama to still be President Obama in 2013 and will be surprised by any other outcome. In fact the thought of him losing re-election is almost (not quite, but almost) inconceivable to me. Why would he lose? Economy etc. aside, President Obama is doing precisely what the country elected him to do, which is to be President while being a slick, photogenic, skinny guy with a darkish skin hue. That is the only reason he was elected and therefore, empirically, that is what the country wanted him to do. And in no way shape or form has he fallen short of that mandate, nor does he threaten to any time in the foreseeable future.

But this thought got me wondering: what would it take for this President, or any President for that matter, to lose re-election? I’m honestly not sure at this point. It’s very hard to picture, isn’t it?

For example, President Bush (43) was probably demonized, on a net basis, more than any human in history not named Hitler (and perhaps even more than him too). His re-election campaign and the election came during a controversial war that was actively leading to casualties on an ongoing and seemingly increasing basis. The full weight and power of the entire intelligentsia and media establishment was dead set against him. And he won. The Clinton case is less striking because he was up against a weak opponent, but the way I remember it his 1994-96 years were not particularly good ones, plagued by a neverending sequence of dumb scandals and hamstrung into paralysis by an (R) Congress, and in a generic sense he was eminently defeatable; but his re-election was (in Presidential-election terms) a landslide.

Before them, however, we had Bush (41), Carter, and Ford all lose re-election bids in a span of 16 years. The Bush loss was pretty much for no reason (because Bush ‘didn’t care’, and got a question wrong about supermarket checkouts, or something); the Carter loss was against someone widely considered a lightweight and a joke; and the Ford loss deserves an asterisk, perhaps, but is still notable in that it came against Carter, a creepy guy nobody knew who basically had no business being President (and was, seemingly, elected precisely for that reason). At least for a time, it seemed as if re-election bids weren’t sure things or rubber stamps, as if something was genuinely at stake, as if the outcome was actually in doubt.

It doesn’t seem that way to me now, and hasn’t for almost 20 years.

I wonder if we’re transitioning to a new age of Perennial Two-Termers, if for all intents and purposes we should just come to grips with the empirical fact that our office of Presidency is an eight-year office. For good and/or ill, whoever we elect in year X is going to still be President in year X+8. This wasn’t always true, or even often true, but it seems to be a reasonable assumption nowadays.

But the question arises, why would this be? Many factors seem to be at work.

  • increased power of the Presidency: He can basically do whatever he wants now, and as a practical matter is empirically more powerful than any dictator ever has been. This can only be an asset when trying to win an election.
  • President-as-celebrity: Nobody is elected based on actual executive skill (let alone ideas), but rather, on celebrity talent/draw. Big time celebrities, once embraced, just don’t fade in 4 years; we like to keep them around.
  • inherent (generic, small-c) conservative nature of the country: We don’t like change. We’ve all become investors, through our 401k’s and homes purchased with option-ARMs; we like our incomes and the gadgets (iPads etc.) they can buy; we are wired into the economy like never before. So our approach to politics/government is more corporate. And corporations just don’t change CEOs on a whim.
  • we’re spoiled because we’re so wealthy, safe, coddled, and secure: in historical elections, real things may have been at stake. Civil war, depression, etc. Nowadays even in the wake of a Financial Crisis™ and a Wrong War™, many/most people probably still live the same sorts of lives they did four years ago and as a practical matter haven’t really been tangibly affected by these things they like to complain about all that much. Since they haven’t been tangibly affected, there’s no great impetus to change course; all the complaining/handwringing about the crises of the day is just a lot of fun water-cooler talk that nobody actually really believes deep down.

Most of these seem to be rather secular, long-term trends that will only continue. If so, we would definitely expect more two-terms and fewer one-termers, just as we’ve been seeing.

Obviously that last bullet point is probably seen by (R)s as the shaky one, the chink in President Obama’s armor. It is where they will poke and prod – asking people if they feel ‘better off’, say – and try to find an opening to gain on him. I don’t think they will succeed, but if they do, they will have proven me wrong that our country has now transitioned to The Age Of Perennial Two-Termers.

7 Responses to The Age Of Perennial Two-Termers

  1. SkepticalCynical says:

    A wise friend likes to ask me the following questions about any election…

    1. Can you imagine anybody who didn’t vote for $incumbent last time voting for him next time?
    2. Can you imagine anybody who did vote for $incumbent last time voting for someone else?

    Certainly we have plenty of examples of Obama supporters who have since recanted. There are basically no votes to gain among progressives, blacks and big labor – all constituencies that Obama won overwhelmingly. And more than a few Ds and independents have been turned off by reckless spending, a crappy economy, the continuation of Bush’s wars & detentions, picking big fights with Israel, crony capitalism in healthcare, finance, autos, etc.

    In 2008, O was a blank slate onto which everyone could project their fantasies of a Black Jesus. But I can certainly imagine his 2012 opponent channeling Reagan’s “are you better off than you were four years ago?” and a whole lot of people thinking “no”.

    • Sure, some will think “no”. Perhaps even many. Those among them who voted for $incumbent in last time will still vote for $incumbent this time. All the reasons/factors in place last time
      in his favor (for those who voted for him), are still there. Or is Barack Obama no longer darkly skin-hued, and suave? (Was there any other tangible basis on which his voters made their choice?)

      As for ‘recanted’, recantations are rhetorical. I don’t think they will translate into votes-against.

      I could be wrong. I think I would even prefer to be wrong, in this case, for any (R) candidate down to and including Palin-level.

      I don’t think I am wrong though. In our nation as currently constituted, and with our electorate as it is currently oriented and motivated, the Presidency is simply not a four-year office.

      • SkepticalCynical says:

        I agree that some people voted for Obama because he was black & suave. That certainly describes a lot of the blacks and SWPL progressives, and they presumably won’t change their minds. Big Labor is a little different – they voted for Obama because he’s basically their wholly-owned subsidiary, and they’ve gotten their money’s worth. They will definitely vote for him again.

        But because of the blank slate factor, a lot of people convinced themselves that Obama supported their political goals: “he’s a libertarian paternalist”, “he’s a foreign policy realist”, “he’s a post-racial healer”, “he’s fiscally responsible”, “he’s going to hire Austan Goolsbee”, etc. There’s no way that trick is going to work twice – any challenger is going to force Obama to defend his actual record.

        I don’t know if this will net out to his defeat. I do think it’s a possibility.

      • You could be right…obviously, we’ll see. This is one of those believe-it-when-I-see-it things for me.

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