History can be made this election year, although the vast majority of voters will have no idea of this fact. If Americans reelect Barack Obama as president in November, they will do something that has only been done one other time in American history: elect three consecutive presidents to two terms.
Currently, the only time that America has had three two-term presidents in a row was 1801 to 1825, when Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe served in the White House. These three figures were all Founding Fathers and thus commanded an immense amount of respect from their countrymen. Jefferson, of course, was well known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, as well as a vital figure in securing French aid during the Revolution. Madison was the president of the Constitutional Convention and sheparded the newborn United States to existence. Monroe was the least prominent of the three, but he served as a delegate to the Continental Congress during the 1780s, as well as carrying the distinction of being the only man to ever hold both the Secretary of State and Secretary of War cabinet positions at the same time, under President Madison.
These were great men, men who had a substantial impact on the forward momentum of the United States, meaning none of them faced a tough reelection bid. Jefferson, running for his second term in 1804 against Charles Pinckney won nearly 73% of the popular vote, one of the most lopsided campaigns in history. James Madison’s reelection bid was closer, with Madison garnering only 50.4% of the popular vote, but 128 Electoral College votes to his competitor’s 89. James Monroe, on the other hand, ran unopposed in his second election, gathering every Electoral College vote except for one, which was a purely symbolic gesture to ensure that nobody but George Washington was ever election unanimously.
One key factor in the election wins of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe was the lack of any real competition. In the early days of our republic, the two prominent political parties were the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. After John Adams, the first and only Federalist president, lost his reelection campaign to Jefferson in 1800, the party began to disappear until it was all but wiped out when Alexander Hamilton, the de facto leader of the Federalists, was killed in a duel in 1804. Without an organized party to combat the Democratic-Republicans for votes, they faced easy elections the likes of which we will likely never see again.
Therefore, it is more peculiar that a streak once again emerges now, when the prominent political parties of today, the Democrats and the Republicans, are both strong.
President Clinton, a Democratic governor, won two presidental elections, 1992 and 1996, serving all eight years of his two terms, generally with a high approval rating (AR). According to Gallup, the premier politicalapproval rating tracker, Clinton had an average AR of 55% over his two terms. His AR in his first term, however, was slightly below that average at 50%, although it hovered around 55% in the weeks leading up to the election of 1996. Clinton benefited from an economy boom thanks to new technologies, the rapid expansion of the internet as a source of commerce, and peace time spending, being the first president to benefit from the end of the Cold War.
President Bush’s numbers, however, read much differently. His average AR was 49%, although his first term average was 62%. One must take Bush’s AR numbers with a grain of salt, as they spiked to an unrealistic 90% AR in the weeks after 9/11, and gradually declined throughout the rest of his two terms, with only fleeting spikes. In the weeks leading up to his reelection bid, his AR was roughly 50%. Bush’s second term AR was a dismal 37% as Hurricane Katrina, war fatigue, a weakening economy and a variety of political gaffes took their toll.
While all the data is not in for President Obama yet, his average year-to-date AR is 49%, similar to Bush’s overall. However, as mentioned above, Bush’s first term AR was drastically higher than Obama’s. In fact, on a week to week basis, Obama’s AR has been higher than Bush’s for only one week since July 20th 2009. That week, May 6th to 13th 2012 saw Obama at 47% while Bush, in his corresponding week, was at 46%. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Clinton has generally been seen as a good but not great president, usually ranking in the middle of the pack in surveys of historians. While currently Bush falls into the lower fourth of presidents, I believe that over time history will view him slightly more favorably, although he will never catch up to his predecessor. It is altogether too early to rank Obama anywhere, regardless of what Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow would have you believe. Although the reason for the recent presidential incumbent success is not currently known to me, perhaps in a few years time it will become clearer.
With Obama losing more and more electoral ground due to the still stagnant economy, and his challenger Mitt Romney losing more and more electoral ground due to Mitt Romney, it remains to be seen if the second presidential trifecta will be completed. But even if it is, it will pale in comparison to its transcendent forerunner.