Incumbency and its Discontents

In the early years, we elected incumbents because they were good, often even great. Today, we tend to elect incumbents because they are there.

Did you know that if President Obama is re-elected in November and serves his entire 8-year term, it will be only the second time in history that we have had three two-term Presidents in a row (Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama in this case)? And the first goes all the way back to the triumvirate of founding fathers, Jefferson (1801-09), Madison (1809-17), and Monroe (1817-25). In fact, only 19 of the 44 US presidents have been re-elected (though FDR did it three times). Even accounting for FDR’s long run, as a national practice, getting re-elected to the presidency has actually been harder than getting elected in the first place.

So why do we think of incumbency as such an advantage in presidential politics? Well, for one, it’s because recently, the trend has in fact favored the incumbent. Of the past 12 presidents (going back to FDR), 8 have served (at least) two terms, one (Kennedy) was assassinated during his first term, meaning only three incumbents in the past 80 years have been voted out of office (Ford, Carter, and G.H.W. Bush). And one of those three, Ford, was never elected in the first place, having been nominated as Vice President after Spiro Agnew resigned and then assuming the Presidency when Nixon resigned, so technically, he was not running for re-election. So 10 of 12 re-election bids in the past 80 years have been successful. That’s an 83% success rate.

Interestingly enough, the early years of the office of the president held a similar re-election rate. Of the first seven presidents, Washington through Andrew Jackson, five served two terms (a 71% success rate). The two exceptions were, ironically, the father-son duo of John and John Quincy Adams. In the years in between Jackson and FDR, however, only five of 25 presidents were re-elected to the office. Even accounting for the three that died during their first term, 5 in 22 is only 23% re-election rate.

So what we appear to have is a shift in social norms regarding presidential incumbency around the time of Andrew Jackson, and then a return pendulum shift beginning with FDR’s four elections in a row.

1789-1837 1837-1933 1933-2009
(5 two-term presidents of 7) (5 two-term presidents of 25) (8 multi-term presidents of 12)
Washington (1789-97) Lincoln (1861-65) F.D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Jefferson (1801-09) Grant (1869-77) Truman (1945-53)
Madison (1809-17) T. Roosevelt (1901-1909) Eisenhower (1953-61)
Monroe (1817-25) Wilson (1913-1921) L. Johnson (1963-1969)
Jackson (1829-37) Coolidge (1923-29) Nixon (1969-1974)
Reagan (1981-89)
Clinton (1993-2001)
Bush (2001-09)

So, what does this all mean? Well, mostly, I just found the whole concept of incumbency interesting to think about.  And, while I have some ideas, I am sure that someone far more historically adept than I could identify what it was about these two presidencies or the history surrounding them that keyed a shift in the social norms around incumbency.

Still, I think there are three takeaways from this analysis. The first I have already said, more or less: that the value of incumbency seems to oscillate in long waves. Our gut sense would tell us that incumbency is an advantage and in the past 20 elections or so, this has proven true. However, it is equally important to recognize that this view of incumbency was not always the case. In the century between Jackson and FDR, it was downright difficult to win re-election.

My second takeaway is patently unscientific but derived from looking more closely at the overall list of victorious incumbents. Among the 19 who have been reelected, four are enshrined into Mt. Rushmore as among our greatest national heroes (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and T. Roosevelt). Two others were the other founding fathers mentioned above. Two more left some of the most indelible marks on the direction of U.S. history anyone has ever made (Andrew Jackson’s governmental reforms and FDR’s New Deal and social safety net). Finally, two were re-elected in the midst of World Wars (Wilson and FDR, again). On merit and/or timing, each of these ten re-elections was either warranted or at least can be easily understood. That leaves nine others:

  • Bush (2001-09)
  • Clinton (1993-2001)
  • Reagan (1981-89)
  • Nixon (1969-1974)
  • L. Johnson (1963-1969)
  • Eisenhower (1953-61)
  • Truman (1945-53)
  • Coolidge (1923-29)
  • Grant (1869-77)

With the exception of Grant and Coolidge, all nine that remain served in the last sixty-five years. Perhaps it is too early to tell whether these more recent presidents will be hailed as national heroes of the caliber of the Mt. Rushmore foursome or those we call “founding fathers.” Perhaps it is too soon to judge whether the marks these men have made on our country (the Patriot Act comes immediately to mind here, but not in a good way) will rival the Jacksonian reforms or the New Deal. At the same time, can we envision history books a century from now talking about Presidents Bush or Clinton with the same awe that is given to Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, or George Washington? Somehow I doubt it. So, how then, are we on the precipice of having only the second troika of two-term presidents in a row? If it isn’t the superior quality of the man or his administration that warrants a second term, then it must be the social norm.  Thus, I would argue, while the pendulum is swinging in the same direction as the early years of the nation, it is not swinging that way for the same reason. In the early years, the first period noted above, we elected incumbents because they were good, often even great. Today, we tend to elect incumbents because they are there.

Further underscoring this claim is the fact that the last time we had three two-term presidents in a row, all three came from the same political party.  In that case, the strength of incumbency probably rested more on the dominance of one party than it did on a social norm of incumbent dominance.  This time around, however, the presidency has been volleyed back and forth with each new non-incumbent election.  Moreover, control of the Senate has shifted 4 times in those same 20 years, while the house has shifted control 3 times.  It cannot be said that one party has the dominant role today.  Rather, it is the power of incumbency itself that appears to hold the most sway.

This of course is all good news for the Obama campaign, which brings me to my third and final takeaway. It seems to me that in the most recent elections, the elections that I have been cognizant of (we’ll say that goes back to the 1988 election), the best candidates seem to flock to the non-incumbent elections (1988, 2000, and 2008). Compare the battle for the Democratic nomination in 2008 to the battle for the Republican nomination today. In 2008, it seemed that regardless of whether Hillary Clinton or Obama emerged, these two were truly among the best the party had to offer. Both had recently come into the spotlight as political movers of their own, Obama rising quickly with star power into his own Senate seat and into an important convention speech in the 2004 convention, and Clinton emerging from her husband’s shadow and turning her first lady fame into a viable candidacy of her own after a successful senate run.

This year, many on both sides of the aisle have noted the absence of any real Republican stars in this race (I myself have lamented the state of the Republican slate here). Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, and Mike Huckabee have all decided to sit this election out, despite large populist efforts to draft them into the race. Even Sarah Palin, who rode her VP nomination to national fame in 2008, has refused to join the 2012 race, despite her flirtations to the contrary. And while all of these stars are watching from the sidelines, the Republican party seems to have so much reluctance in naming Mitt Romney, the clear frontrunner at this point, the nominee. Some are even suggesting that if the race goes all the way to the convention, one of the stars may still jump in and run from the floor of the convention. I just cannot see that happening. The stars are absent for a reason, and incumbency is a big part of it. Mark my words that at least two or three of the names I listed above will be in the mix for 2016, but you will not see any of them this year. They have self-selected out of fighting the incumbent, which in turn, only makes the incumbency norm more entrenched.

So to recap, I began with the notion that the power of incumbency has ebbed and flowed throughout American history, but not haphazardly: as a variable, the power of incumbency has followed long-range trends. Recently (in the past 20 elections), there is a strong trend toward the presidential incumbent being re-elected. Finally, this trend has even more recently passed a noteworthy inflection point in which the best candidates are self-selecting out of running against incumbents and instead opting in to non-incumbent elections. It is this later trend that concerns me: the more it continues, the harder it will become for sitting presidents to be elected out of office without a major scandal.

[Matthew Gaudet is an adjunct professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco and a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union.  For more of Matt’s posts on this blog, please click here]


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