Trump’s ever-diminishing power of incumbency

Trump’s ever-diminishing power of incumbency
US President Donald Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Chris Kleponis / Pool)

Incumbent presidents facing a battle for a second term can draw on significant advantages over any challenger – unless they appear unfeeling in the face of economic disaster or incompetent or irresolute in dealing with a major domestic or foreign crisis. Has Donald Trump now finally positioned himself to prove this theory correct?


…[T]hat a man acting in the capacity of chief magistrate [ie, the president], under a consciousness that in a very short time he MUST lay down his office, will be apt to feel himself too little interested in it to hazard any material censure or perplexity, from the independent exertion of his powers, or from encountering the ill-humours, however transient, which may happen to prevail, either in a considerable part of the society itself, or even in a predominant faction in the legislative body…

…It may be asked also, whether a duration of four years would answer the end proposed; and if it would not, whether a lesser period, which would at least be recommended by greater security against ambitious designs, would not, for that reason, be preferable to a longer period, which was, at the same time, too short for the purpose of inspiring the desired firmness and independence of the magistrate.

…It cannot be affirmed, that a duration of four years, or any other limited duration, would completely answer the end proposed; but it would contribute towards it in a degree which would have a material influence upon the spirit and character of the government

–  from “The Federalist Papers #71” (written by  Alexander Hamilton)

In 1787, Alexander Hamilton was leading the charge for the adoption of a new constitution for the 13 bickering and quarrelling American states. These states had only recently won their independence from Britain, but they were still fighting about what kind of government they would create to replace the rickety, toothless Confederation they had. 

Key issues included the powers, the manner of selection, and the length of a term of office for the new position of chief executive. Arguments revolved around the supremacy of a legislature versus the executive (or vice versa) in terms of authority and power under the proposed constitution, the length of a term in office for a president, and even, among some, whether or not national hero George Washington should be offered the throne as the country’s new king.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper #71, one in the series of those influential essays reprinted in newspapers and pamphlets all across the new nation, in arguing for the new constitution, had held out for a four-year term of office as sufficient to balance dictatorial tendencies and an interest by a president in doing the job properly. And, of course, as we know, he won this argument, as with so many others. 

George Washington had been a near-unanimous pick among electors (and the public) for the country’s first president. The electors, a device borrowed from ideas in Plato’s The Republic, were specified to keep such an important choice out of the hands of the rabble and for it to be given, instead, to wise, experienced, greybeards, elected state by state, as a council who would actually determine who would be a new president. 

As the nation’s first president, willing to serve only two terms and declining a third-term nomination – although he certainly could have had one had he so chosen – Washington set in motion both precedent and pattern that lasted until Franklin Roosevelt decided to run for a third, and then a fourth, term of office in 1940 and ’44. Roosevelt made that choice (and won) those two additional terms on the grounds of the country’s survival during the Great Depression, and victory in World War II demanded continuity, rather than adherence to 150 years of precedent set by Washington.

In the initial years of the country, strong-minded men who had helped create the country’s government like Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, had been assertive presidents who often outweighed the combined weight of Congress in setting the country’s course. Thereafter, with the exception of Andrew Jackson’s tenure in office and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln (the latter with the country’s existential crisis of the Civil War as his main focus), the influence of Congress became more and more powerful than that of a president through the remainder of the 19th century. Congressional leaders were the men who set the pace for everything from westward territorial expansion and the preservation of slavery as an institution, to the imposition of tariffs or the establishment of “national improvements” (what we now term infrastructure). 

When Woodrow Wilson, then head of Princeton University (and later New Jersey governor and American president) wrote his influential 1888 volume on American government, he called it Congressional Government, in recognition of the apparent truth of that idea and with more than a nod towards the fact that the Constitution had given Congress pride of place in Article I, and not the chief executive. Two decades later, however, in a subsequent volume, Constitutional Government, recognising growing presidential activism through the “bully pulpit” of the “progressive era” legislation, and the government’s consequent administrative growth, Wilson had reconsidered legislative primacy.

In the 20th century, it increasingly became the norm that an incumbent president would want to run for a second term (something not entirely the norm in the latter half of the 19th century), and that with the machinery of government and other official perks at his disposal, he would stand a rather good chance to gain that second term. Theodore Roosevelt had decided not to run when his second term ended (his first was mostly the one in which he had originally been elected as vice president with William McKinley, and he became president when McKinley was assassinated). But then he chose to oppose his own hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, in 1912 in an unsuccessful third-party bid that then allowed Woodrow Wilson to win instead in that unusual three-way race. 

Woodrow Wilson pulled off a second-term win in 1916, largely through the simple slogan, in the midst of World War I in Europe, that “He kept us out of war”. The country’s economy was thriving, and neutrality seemed a fine way to placate the various immigrant communities and their disagreements over which side to support.   

Into the 1920s, Herbert Hoover had the ill-luck to try his re-election bid amid the Great Depression and his obvious inability to turn things around. He was thoroughly trounced by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, who won again in ’36, ’40 and ’44. Roosevelt’s death in the spring of 1945 catapulted his vice president, Harry Truman into the presidency early in Roosevelt’s fourth term of office, and Truman then won his election bid in 1948, largely on bread-and-butter issues, but then decided against running for re-election in 1952. While not stated as such terms, given Truman’s deeply declining popularity as a result of a seemingly unending Korean conflict, and faced with the possibility of having to run against World War II hero, General Dwight Eisenhower, Truman stepped aside. (The Constitution had been amended during Truman’s term to limit a president to just two four-year terms, but this amendment did not apply to the incumbent president. Accordingly, Truman could have run again, had he chosen to do so.)

With Eisenhower, his policies seemed sufficiently in keeping with the prosperity of the post-war 1950s that his popularity easily carried him through a second election in 1956. John Kennedy, elected in 1960, would surely have stood for re-election in 1964, but his assassination raised his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, to the presidency. As the incumbent, Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater in 1964, even as Johnson had begun to push a civil rights agenda that split white Southern voters from the Democratic Party after 100 years of near-automatic allegiance.

Richard Nixon similarly gained a second term in 1972. But he was undone by Watergate, thereby allowing Gerald Ford, his vice president (replacing Spiro Agnew who himself had been forced to resign over bribery scandals during his time as a governor) to move into the top office. 

And here is where the story of incumbency and the seeking of re-election becomes more complex. As a non-elected vice president, Gerald Ford had actually never conducted a nationwide run for office, and he (unfairly, perhaps) carried a reputation for being less than the sharpest blade in the knife box (despite having graduated from Yale Law School). Add to that an unfair rap for clumsiness resulting from slipping down an aeroplane stair ramp; the final ignominious departure from Vietnam; the embarrassment of a flawed rollout of the swine flu vaccine, and his unfortunate verbal gaffe in a nationally televised debate – speaking about Soviet domination of Poland – completed the picture of a decent man, in over his head. This was in contrast to his opponent, Jimmy Carter, a New South governor, and navy nuclear engineer/peanut farmer.

Jimmy Carter, of course, was himself defeated in his try for a second term, done in by economic malaise, sky-high petrol prices, and the failed rescue attempt in the hostage drama at the US Embassy in Tehran. His opponent, Ronald Reagan, the genial former California governor and Hollywood actor, convinced sufficient numbers of voters that “It is morning in America” that he swept into office. He won re-election four years later, despite miscellaneous scandals swirling around his presidency such as the Iran-Contra debacle. 

Former US presidents George H. W. Bush (R) and Bill Clinton (L) talk as they board a private plane to depart for Indonesia’s tsunami-ravaged Aceh province following a visit to Phuket, at Phuket International airport, Thailand, 20 February 2005 (reissued 01 December 2018). EPA-EFE/VINAI DITHAJOHN

Reagan’s vice president and successor as president, George HW Bush presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War that left him with a seemingly unbeatable level of public support, only to see it auger downward with a substantial economic downturn and the fatal moment when, in a supermarket, Bush appeared to be sublimely out of touch with the travails and realities of ordinary Americans, as he publicly marvelled at a standard checkout till optical scanner. By contrast, the man who defeated him, another Southern governor, Bill Clinton, adopted the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” honing in on the financial and economic pressures facing ordinary voters, thereby winning in 1992, and then, again, in 1996. 

Neither George W Bush nor Barack Obama faced truly tremendous campaign pressures in their re-election bids in 2004 and 2012 respectively. The one brought the powers and prestige of the modern presidency fully to bear in dealing with the so-called “war on terror”, and the other in coping with the effects of the 2008-9 financial crisis. 

Accordingly, drawing from these thumbnail accounts of incumbent presidents winning (or losing) their re-election bids, there are two key lessons to be drawn from these experiences. First is that an incumbent president will likely prevail in a re-election bid in the face of grave political or foreign policy challenges, if he appears resolute and responsible, taking decisive action in the face of the crisis (Covid-19, al-Qaeda?), thus owning those actions and the crisis, rather than with the shrugging of shoulders and a muttered, “It is what it is.” Second is that in an incumbent’s race against a credible opponent, the candidate who appears to understand best the economic troubles faced by the citizens of a nation, rather than standing back wishing it would all just go away, comes out ahead.

These two problems seem to be key to the troubles of the Trump re-election bid. In trying to look ahead two months to election day, Susan Glasser wrote in The New Yorker, “Biden today is a bad debate, a campaign stumble or two, and an October surprise away from a 2016 repeat [of Clinton’s loss]. Which is why the small ups and downs of the race may, in fact, matter – the slight shifts that do not register in the national aggregate but mean everything in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or Florida. But neither is Biden doomed to Clinton’s fate. It may be that we are stuck in an endless loop of replaying the events of 2016 so much that it has become almost impossible to look at the politics of 2020 for what they are: an increasingly uphill battle for an embattled incumbent at a time when the country is mired in crises for which a majority of Americans blame him. 

“Biden may yet stumble, but isn’t it just as likely that the race moves as little in the next two months as it has in the past two? There are no examples in our recent history of an incumbent President down this far in the polls who has still managed to win. If Trump is at the same place on 3 November that he is today, he would lose in a landslide as unprecedented in modern times as the Presidency that preceded it.”

Or, as The Economist, in their Lexington column of 29 August put it: “The big question, of course, is whether a majority of American voters will hold the line against Mr Trump. He currently trails Mr Biden by a decent margin. Yet in the context of the dishonesty, narcissism, contempt for office and incuriosity about the miseries facing millions he displayed this week, it is not wide enough.” Still, there is more than enough time for a Gerald Ford-like gaffe in one of the three upcoming presidential debates, for the Covid-19 pandemic to take a real turn for the worse (or even tail off) or a viable vaccine to become available, for the economy to begin to right itself (or sink further), or for the racial/civil rights/justice tumult of the past several months to begin to recede – or to begin playing out as rival bands actually begin to shoot things out in earnest. 

At least for now, that legendary fat lady hasn’t – as yet – put on her horned helmet or taken up her long spear so she can wait in the wings, let alone begun to sing her closing aria. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    Am currently in Florida. Cannot help but recall William Shirer’s ‘Berlin Diary’ as rabid Floridians of the ‘boat’ class tool around in their motorboats & trucks with Trump 2020 flags fluttering fitfully in the breeze… Sadly, they seem to have co-opted the Stars & Stripes as well. They are almost without exception rabid, mean-spirited & hyper-aggressive. We know how this ended for the same crowd from Berlin. Not so well. For everyone. May the democratic forces of good sense prevail!

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