Barack Obama and the incumbent president conundrum

A friend who predicted a narrow Obama victory writes:

I was thinking about the point I made earlier – incumbent presidents’ attempts to win re-election. Starting with McKinley in 1896, every incumbent who sought re-election won except for five: Taft; Hoover; Ford; Carter; and George H.W. Bush. All but Hoover faced a strong primary challenge (TR in 1912; Ronald Reagan in 1976; Ted Kennedy in 1980; and Pat Buchanan in 1992) and three of those four faced a serious general election third party challenge (TR in 1912; John Anderson in 1980; and Ross Perot in 1992).

Hoover may be an outlier, but his situation is unique because of the Great Depression. Given this history, I wonder whether people should stop all the second-guessing about what happened this time: Mitt Romney had to overcome a difficult primary battle and unite a divided Republican Party, and he faced a united Democratic Party and a media that loves President Obama. It’s not surprising that the incumbent won.

But there’s another side to the incumbent advantage. It is expressed in this WSJ column by John Steele Gordon. He points out that the considerable majority of second terms were far less successful than the first term, with more than a few proving disastrous.

The list of presidents whose second term was much tougher sledding than the first is not confined to the likes of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. It also includes Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

But even if Obama’s second administration is only marginally less successful than his first, he’s still in for a rough time.

Unfortunately, a rough time for a president — even one whose policies we abhor — isn’t necessarily good for the nation. That depends on the nature of the president’s rough time.