Political observers have speculated about whether President Barack Obama might replace Vice President Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton on the 2012 Democratic ticket. But as a student of history who knows well the perils of second terms, the president might instead choose a course that would be much more surprising, but in some ways highly logical: not to seek reelection at all.
Consider the second-term tribulations of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Every president wants "four more years," but actually getting them has proven to be the worst second act in modern politics. In the post- World War II era, terrible disappointment has followed triumphs for those White House residents winning a second term. Even worse, a lifetime of feeling unappreciated, even bitter at times, has been the fate for those Oval Office residents (Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush) who ran and lost.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are the only back-to-back presidents in the modern era to complete their two terms. Mr. Clinton saw his hopes for a major legacy in the second term upended by the Lewinsky scandal. For Mr. Bush, first-term wars produced a deepening second-term blues, topped off by the Great Recession and tanking approval ratings.
Mr. Obama has surely considered the second-term curse. Since the rise of America to superpower status, the presidency has become immensely more complicated and difficult than envisioned at Philadelphia in 1787. Crushing, constant pressures in the Atomic Age, a torture chamber disguised as a governing system, and a 24/7 Ironman Triathlon masquerading as an election campaign all make us wonder whether the political gods have been trying to send presidents a message.
Ironically, most second-term winners — Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan — amassed huge landslides, only to see them turn into slippery downward slopes. Eisenhower, in part hampered by heart trouble, was mostly a well-admired caretaker at the end. Johnson saw his presidency disappear into the jungles of Vietnam. While Nixon was winning 49 states, his henchmen were in the process of breaking most every political law in the District of Columbia. Only Mr. Reagan was able to get his handpicked successor elected. But even the Gipper saw most of the energy of his last four years ruined by the single misstep of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Like Messrs. Nixon and Bush, Mr. Obama faces the prospect of getting reelected while foreign wars loom in the background. Each is an unpredictable and ticking international time-bomb, although for different reasons. Leaving Iraq risks undoing what progress has been made, while leaving Afghanistan would expose how little has been achieved. Futile wars didn't stop the two Republicans from winning. But Truman and Johnson saw chances for second full terms dashed by unpopular wars 10,000 miles away.
Like Presidents Ford, Carter and the first Bush, Mr. Obama might run in 2012 with the public unhappy over the state of things economically and fiscally. All three lost, two of them by large margins.
In the wake of the GOP triumph in this year's midterms, the political world is abuzz with speculation about what that portends for the president's reelection prospects. But midterm elections are uncertain predictors of an incumbent president's chances.
In 1946, after Republican midterm gains, a Democratic senator actually suggested that Truman resign since the president was a sure loser anyway in two years. After the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, pundits declared Bill Clinton irrelevant. Both presidents bounced back. Democrats recapturing Congress in 1954 didn't stop Ike's second straight landslide. In 1978, Democrats only suffered historically small loses, but two years later Mr. Carter lost huge. There is no discernible pattern.
But rather than focus all his energy running for a second consecutive term, there is this calculation: Would Barack Obama have more clout as an ex-president able to seek another term at a time of his choosing, or as someone who had used up his constitutional eligibility? Position authority is fleeting — but moral authority, once attained, is eternal.
Among today's political elite, the perks, privileges, and of course the power — not to mention the 24/7 Internet fame — are all that seem important. But judging from his writings at least, this president sees himself more as a moral leader than a power-hungry politician. The threat of his running for president in the future might prove a far stronger bully pulpit to achieve needed change than a second consecutive term as president.
This president said he came to Washington to change the rules. By not running in 2012, he would do that for all time.
Paul Goldman is former chair of the Virginia Democratic Party. His e-mail is
. Mark J. Rozell is a professor of public policy at George Mason University. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org