Could President Obama Win A Third Term?

Jul 29, 2015
Originally published on July 30, 2015 1:57 pm

President Obama was giving the final speech of his Africa tour, offering a critique of the young democracies on that continent, singling out the all-too-typical practice of leaders overstaying their terms in office.

"When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife," Obama said, aware that the president of Burundi, seated nearby, had recently defied that country's two-term limit.

Obama pointed to the shining example of Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, who left office on schedule and transferred power peacefully.

Obama also pointed to himself.

"I actually think I'm a pretty good president," he said with a smile. "I think if I ran I could win. But I can't. ... The law is the law, and no one person is above the law, not even the president."

The law the president mentioned is the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, limiting a president to two terms. It was ratified in 1951, in a kind of delayed reaction to the epochal presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who won his fourth term in 1944.

Obama was talking about African leaders, but back in the States, that context was often lost in heated reactions to his claim to re-electability.

The very idea ignited digital high dudgeon. News websites featuring the story were soon festooned with endless reader comments, many interpreting Obama's statement as a dark hint that he plans to do just what he was denouncing.

Wrote one commenter identified as "Snowleopard" on The Blaze: "Honestly, I expect that Obama will find some excuse to nullify the next elections, and declare himself as President for Life ... "

"Sargeking" heard much the same message: "He has ignored our Constitution from day one since 2008, why should he amend his ways now? In fact, I harbor the thought that he's waiting for some major event that will posture him in a 'holdover' for the duration."

Some commenters worried about Obama finagling a third term by some back-door maneuver, such as having first lady Michelle Obama run for president — or perhaps by becoming vice president to a President Joe Biden.

But even those who do not imagine a palace coup in the making might well dispute the president's boast about winning again.

A third term, really? With all the controversy over Obamacare and the Iran deal and executive orders on immigration? With an approval number that's nearly always below 50 percent, and other measures of the national mood lukewarm at best?

Well, it's an exercise in pure speculation. But it is a question with real relevance for Hillary Clinton, or whomever the Democrats wind up nominating. Because that nominee will inevitably be said to be running for "Obama's third term."

Let's say you combine three polling numbers: the president's job-approval ratings, the national "right direction-wrong track" score and the "generic ballot" for Congress (a choice between the parties). Obama's standing by these data points right now is about where it was in the summer of 2012, less than six months before he swamped Mitt Romney in the Electoral College.

The difference is, of course, that when you go from polling to an actual election, you run against an actual opponent. And the question of re-election becomes: "Compared to what?"

That thought weighed on blogger Aaron Goldstein on the conservative The American Spectator's website. While dreading the thought of another Obama term, Goldstein wasn't sure the voters would agree.

"Say what you will about Obama," Goldstein wrote. "The man knows how to run a campaign, at least when he is at the center of it. Sure he has a lot of help from a sympathetic and sycophantic media. But Obama and his team ... know how to make the other guy ... the issue."

Goldstein shakes his head over the performance of Romney (and John McCain in 2008), and he doubts most of the 2016 contenders as well (making an exception for Scott Walker).

Four U.S. presidents have completed a second term since that became the limit, and three of them might well have had a shot at winning again: Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Eisenhower was still popular in 1960, despite ill health, and his vice president (Richard Nixon) came within a whisker of succeeding him that year. Reagan almost certainly would have been re-elected in 1988, when his vice president (George H.W. Bush) did, in fact, win.

Clinton in 2000 had survived impeachment and ridden good economic times to an approval rating well over 60 percent. Sure enough, his vice president (Al Gore) won the popular vote for president that year by half a million votes (while losing the Electoral College by one state).

In each of those three elections, the crucial element was the nominee offered up by the party out of power. For many voters, those nominees helped make the prospect of a third term for the retiring incumbent look pretty good.

One thing to bear in mind: If it were possible for Obama to run again, he would presumably benefit from the continuing shift in voter demographics. Since Reagan's first victory in 1980, the percentage of the presidential vote cast by non-Hispanic whites has fallen from about 90 to 72 percent — or about 2 percent on average in each election.

That is a big reason why Republicans have won the popular vote only once in the past six presidential cycles. Assuming this change in the electorate continues apace, the Obama of 2016 would start with an even greater edge than the Obama of 2008 or 2012.

So count Obama out in 2016, because the Constitution says no. Even if the voters might not.

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As he wrapped up his Africa trip this week, President Obama lectured some of that continent's leaders about leaving office when their terms are over. He pointed out that U.S. law requires him to do so, but he added this...


BARACK OBAMA: I actually think I'm a pretty good president. I think if I ran I could win, but I can't.

BLOCK: He can't because of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. Still, this idea has relevance to the eventual nominees of both parties. And joining us to talk about why is NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Why do you think President Obama raised this notion of a third term on this Africa trip?

ELVING: He was talking to the African leaders, but of course, he's aware his comments are going to travel across the Atlantic and he has been fairly open about his sense of confidence lately. It certainly helps hold down the talk of lame duck status, doesn't it?

BLOCK: It does and it opens up the doors to all kinds of conspiracy theories, right? The people who are saying this means that President Obama is launching a trial balloon, might try to declare a state of emergency or have Michelle Obama become president. This is floating out in the Twitterverse, right?

ELVING: Yes, the Internet is full of many things. The Obama remark prompted a storm of what you could call digital high dudgeon. But there is no path for him to remain president period.

BLOCK: But as we mentioned, his standing is important in this notion that if I did run I could win because his popularity will affect the Democratic nominee and that nominee will be tied to his performance, for better or worse.

ELVING: That's right. The standing of the president in approval polls is one of the strongest indicators of his party's likely success or failure in the next election. And whomever the Democrats nominate, that person will be said by many to be running for, quote, "Obama's third term."

BLOCK: Well, let's take up President Obama's hypothetical here. If he could run, could he in fact win? Nobody has won more than two terms since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

ELVING: No, but we've had four presidents who served out a second term since then and three of them would have been at least plausible as candidates for another term - Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, Ronald Reagan in 1988, Bill Clinton in 2000.

BLOCK: And you would get some argument, right, about each of those three.

ELVING: Of course. Eisenhower had health issues and he was ready to leave office, but he was still popular. His vice president, Richard Nixon, actually came within a whisker of winning that year. Reagan was 77. Many think he could have won easily, nonetheless. Clinton, in 2000, had survived impeachment. He was at about 60 percent approval in the polls and his vice president, Al Gore, actually won the popular vote for president that year, losing by the narrowest of margins in the Electoral College.

BLOCK: So what about Barack Obama?

ELVING: You could say he is on the bubble. His approval rating tends to run between 45 and 50. Pollsters also look at other measures, of course, such as the right direction-wrong track question, and that still yields very negative results. And looking at various kinds of data, the president looks to be about where he was in the summer of 2011 and the summer of 2012 leading up to his re-election that year.

BLOCK: And what's happened to the coalition of voters that got him elected in 2008 and then re-elected four years later?

ELVING: That could be a plus for him in this hypothetical because portions of that coalition are growing. More millennials will become eligible to vote every day, and the minority communities have been getting to be a bigger portion of the vote with each presidential election for a generation now. They were about 10 percent Reagan's era. Now they're close to 30 percent and increasing by about 2 percent in each presidential cycle. They didn't turn out so much for the midterms in 2010 and 2014, but if they are going to come back in 2016 - talking now about the young, the minorities - they would seem at least as likely come back for Obama as for any other Democrat.

BLOCK: That's NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.