Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” He served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Earlier this year, President Trump quipped (I’d like to believe not seriously) that he’d probably remain in office for 10 to 14 years. On another occasion, Trump spoke highly of China’s President Xi being president for life and joked to great applause that maybe “we’ll give that a shot someday.”
Though he once claimed he’d done more in his first two years in office than any other President in US history (George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt, among others, might have something to say about that), Trump is certainly no great student of the presidency. As such, he is likely unaware of an intriguing trend among his three predecessors that may carry consequences for 2020.
Indeed, sometimes presidential trivia can be, well, not so trivial.
Consider this: Minus the FDR exception (he served multiple terms in office before the advent of modern-day term limits), we have now had three two-term presidents in a row: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The last time that sequence occurred was well over two centuries ago, with a trio of like-minded chief executives: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe (1801-1825).
Indeed, what makes the contemporary trio even more unique is that unlike their historical predecessors, who represented a kind of self-perpetuating political dynasty (they lived within 30 miles of one another, all knew each another, and hailed from the same state and political party), Clinton, Bush and Obama were wildly different as people and as presidents. Between 1996 and 2012, Americans managed to elect two Democrats and a Republican to second terms who were each distinct in style, personality, and political orientation.
So what does this pattern say about the presidency and our current politics – and what, if anything, might it portend for 2020?
The incumbent’s home-court advantage
Some might say not much. The factors and circumstances that led to these presidents’ reelections were just too varied and idiosyncratic to draw any broader conclusions. Still, with only 13 consecutive two-termers out of 44 past presidents (roughly 31%) and only five since the death of FDR, three consecutive two-termers is no small matter.
No matter how you cut it, three consecutive two-termers in command of the presidency demonstrate the vast power available to the modern-day incumbent. The capacity of presidents to direct that power to solve problems may be vastly overrated – animated in the public’s imagination by, for example, a president played by Harrison Ford single-handedly killing terrorists aboard Air Force One.
Still, as Aaron Sorkin noted in his script for the 1995 movie “The American President,” the White House represents “the single greatest home-court advantage in the modern world.” This is especially true in the age of 24-hour news, where a president commands extraordinary and immediate visibility.
Congress and the Supreme Court may go in and out of session, but the President is the Energizer Bunny of American politics – always on and ever present. It’s no coincidence that in the last 11 elections with incumbent candidates, incumbents prevailed eight times, leaving just three – Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush – as lonely one- or partial-termers.
It’s easy to see why incumbents have such an advantage. As President Trump has demonstrated with frightening clarity, presidents dominate the national and media narratives; we see or hear them daily, in Trump’s case often hourly. They wield the powers of government; their policy priorities and re-election campaigns are launched even before their first term begins; and that initial success not only creates an existing campaign organization and donor bases but can also drive the perception that the election is theirs to lose.
What our modern-day two-term presidents can tell us
Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama were all reelected for vastly different reasons. What matters is that they all won second terms. It’s also worth pointing out, as we look to 2020, that they all beat opponents who were not particularly strong candidates.
Our modern two-term trio also suggests another reality of presidential politics: Even as our politics at the congressional level and in the media reflect severe polarization, volatility and partisanship, it may well be that Americans look to the presidency as a kind of port in the storm, a stable refuge from the uncertainty and chaos of our otherwise dysfunctional politics.
Despite taking a battering over the years, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, the office of presidency still represents what’s left of our affinity and allegiance to national symbols and values embodied in an office and in an individual – the only elected official whom we can all vote for. Whether it’s Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, Bush with his megaphone at Ground Zero or Obama in the wake of the Charleston shootings, we look to our presidents to lead, console, inspire and guide us through trauma and crisis.
Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama were nowhere near achieving undeniable greatness in the presidency. Indeed, they were all flawed and imperfect leaders. Still, when considering a second term, Americans seemed willing to forgive their flaws, favor their strengths over their liabilities and make allowances for their transgressions.
Whether it’s risk-aversion, inertia or any number of rationalizations among voters for not making a change midstream, the last quarter-century has demonstrated a remarkable stability in the presidency.
So what does this stability – unseen for over two centuries – say about the prospects for a fourth consecutive two-termer? The whole idea of making predictions a year-plus before an election is perilous – even during ordinary times. And we are not living in anything remotely resembling ordinary times.
The power of Trump’s incumbency is uncharted territory
As an incumbent, Trump carries unprecedented advantages. A strong economy and a nation secure from foreign threats extricating itself from foreign wars adds to that advantage. But what of the idea of the presidency as a source of stability, continuity and unity – a place of leadership in tune with the best of America’s norms and values?
Whatever their failings – and there were many, particularly Clinton’s behavior with a presidential intern – Donald Trump’s three predecessors saw the office of the presidency as something greater than themselves, a national trust of sorts. They too encountered much of the partisanship and climate of conspiracy that helped fuel Trump’s rise. But they never exploited it as a strategy and governing principle; and never departed – certainly never as egregiously and selfishly as Trump has – from their role as unifiers and custodians of the values of the office.
If the presidency remains a source of comfort and stability, a place of unity and a high ground for Americans despite all that divides them, Trump has brought precisely the opposite to the office: disruption, disrespect and the delegitimization of longstanding values and norms that have defined the presidency’s resilience over the years.
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Will Trump become the first fourth-consecutive two-term president in American history? The answer may well depend on whether enough Americans still value the office of the presidency – and whether they demand from its occupant a respect for the standards and integrity that generations of Americans have come to expect from their presidents.