Phase one for restoring the republic is over: the House is now in Republican hands, thereby assuring nothing radical will sail through the Congress in the next two years (although it would be wise to be on the alert for unconstitutional executive orders intended to accomplish that purpose). If the electorate remains informed and stays on task, 2012 will see the Senate flip as well since the majority of seats up for reelection are currently in Democrat hands.
Phase two may be more difficult. How likely is it that an incumbent president will be stripped of his position? What will it take? Some say it’s a very difficult task, yet it has occurred rather often. Under what circumstances? A short survey of twentieth-century presidential politics may offer some clues as to the feasibility that Barack Obama will be a one-termer.
We can begin with William Howard Taft, Republican winner of the 1908 election as the handpicked successor to Theodore Roosevelt.
For reasons too detailed to enter into in this abbreviated survey, Roosevelt soured on Taft and sought to reclaim the Republican nomination in 1912. He beat Taft in all the primaries, but the bulk of the delegates were still chosen at the convention, which the establishment controlled. Taft won the nomination, Roosevelt and his followers stormed out, and they formed a third party—the Progressives—that promptly split the Republican vote, allowing Woodrow Wilson to waltz into the White House with a minority of the popular vote. So, in this case, the incumbent met defeat due to such a strong challenge within his own party that it could not stay unified.
The next time an incumbent president failed to win reelection was in 1932 when Republican Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt. The circumstances for this loss were different.
Hoover, in the eyes of most of the electorate, epitomized the current state of the economy: the Great Depression. With unemployment near 25%, his loss was no big surprise. Hoover certainly did his share to depress recovery; he was an interventionist president who tried to use the government to dig out of it. Nothing he tried worked, so the people chose FDR, who was merely Hoover on steroids. The Depression continued throughout the decade.
We have to jump to the 1960s for the next example, and it is slightly different than the previous two because the sitting president, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, bowed out of the 1968 race shortly after it began.
Beset by the unpopular Vietnam War, the nation split both politically and culturally because of it, LBJ decided after winning the New Hampshire primary less than spectacularly to a virtually unknown senator, Eugene McCarthy, that he didn’t have the stomach to continue. His vice president, Hubert Humphrey, shouldered the mantle of LBJ’s administration and policies, losing to Richard Nixon. Although Humphrey wasn’t the incumbent president, he was the next best thing.
The case of Republican Gerald Ford was unique: although he was a president seeking to remain in office, he had never been placed in that office by the voters.
Ford owed his incumbency to Watergate. Nominated by Nixon, and confirmed by the Senate, to replace the disgraced vice president Spiro Agnew, who resigned under the cloud of tax evasion charges, Ford only ascended to the presidential office upon Nixon’s resignation. While technically the incumbent, Ford had no real constituency and was ripe for being removed by the electorate. Amazingly, though, he gave Jimmy Carter a real run in 1976 and only suffered defeat by a narrow margin in the electoral college.
Carter’s success was short-lived.
Again, a bad economy initiated the discomfort of the voters. Economists had to invent a new word—stagflation—to adequately describe what Carter achieved. Added to that was the insult of Iran’s revolution where the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized and the Americans inside held hostage. Carter seemed impotent to do anything about it. Consequently, the combination of economic and foreign policy disasters brought him down and the nation enjoyed a return to prosperity and international respect under Ronald Reagan during the 1980s.
George H. W. Bush was the next victim, and he did his best to engineer his own defeat.
Bush was wildly popular after the Gulf War, with public opinion polls peaking at 91% approval in March 1991. By the time of the election in November 1992, he was struggling with a slighly weak economy, a broken promise about no new taxes, and the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. In that election, Perot took 19% of the popular vote. Although he didn’t win any states, most analysts believe the bulk of that 19% ordinarily would have been Republican votes. As a result of the third party, we had to endure Bill Clinton.
What can we learn from this survey? An incumbent president can be unseated for a variety of reasons: a bad economy, a split within his own party, a third-party candidacy that siphons off his base, or even a cultural shift. If Obama’s policies continue unabated, we will have a bad economy in 2012; it is conceivable, although not likely, he will be challenged from within his party [anyone anticipating another Clinton?]; a third-party candidacy strong enough to take votes from the Democrats is not a high probability but can’t be discounted; a cultural shift of sorts is underway as a multitude of Americans are now reconsidering the wisdom of the Founders.
Will President Obama be a one-term president? There is hope.