A week ago, on Election Day, the election results indicated that Barack Obama will be reelected president of the United States.
You say he’s been elected? Sorry, folks, that’s up to the Electoral College now. How soon they forget.
Obama joins a small club … six presidents elected to at least two terms with over 50% of the popular vote both times. The others? Andrew Jackson; Ulysses S. Grant; William McKinley; Franklin D. Roosevelt; Dwight D. Eisenhower; and Ronald Reagan.
(We don’t have popular vote returns before 1824: it would be safe to say that otherwise George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe would join this list.)
Of the six men, one (McKinley) did not survive his second term; in the other five cases, the incumbent struggled during his second term, particularly during his final two years in office. The same would be true if we added the pre-1824 quartet to the discussion.
There have been reports that President Obama has invited historians to the White House. I’ve not been invited, and that’s his loss (yes, I’m serious about that). Reelected presidents all too often ponder their place in history as they await the opportunity to offer a second inaugural address. The legacy question looms large. Already Obama wants to make sure that we historians accord him a place in history that he so ardently desires, because it is in the legacy question that we cast the ballots that he wants to win.
Note that several historians pressed Obama to think about Theodore Roosevelt (especially if they were writing about him). Obama’s not the first president to have TR on the brain: he was also a Clinton favorite. We all remember what happened during Clinton’s second term, don’t we?
I have bad news for the president. He has two years left to engineer meaningful change that anyone can believe in. Once the midterm elections have come and gone, he will have to contend with members of his own party who want to follow him into the White House, as well as members of the opposition party who can’t wait to run against someone who is not Barack Obama. One of the notable criticisms of his reelection bid was his failure to outline a compelling vision for a second term. One could say the same for several of the people listed above (including Grant). Between the fiscal cliff, cabinet changes, a resignation in the wake of scandal, and lingering questions about 9/11/12, he already has enough on his plate, but unless he chooses to focus on a few issues and (this time) place his presidency behind them, I have reason to believe that the second term will not be much different from the first.
Let’s look a bit more closely at those second terms of the six who won with over 50% twice. Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States proved counterproductive. Grant’s term blew up in 1873, between scandals involving Congress (administration scandals would come later), a resurgence of white supremacist terrorism, a renewal of hostilities in the West with Native American tribes, and a major economic downturn. One will never know what McKinley might have done. FDR’s court-packing plan proved a disaster and he was ineffective in foreign policy through 1939. Eisenhower saw Sputnik, Cuba, Quemoy and Matsu, and the fate of Gary Powers’s U2 flight spark renewed Cold War concerns. Reagan achieved some foreign policy triumphs, but there was also Iran Contra.
In short, what Obama makes of his second chance and whether he can offer the substance that his oratory promises and leads us to expect will tell us a great deal about what a second term might mean. I think things will turn out better for him if he worries less about what we historians will say and more about doing what he has to do to get what he wants done.