Over that past century, only four elected U.S. presidents have failed to win a second term in office. America's 27th president, William Taft, succumbed to an insurgent challenge from his White House predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, whose third party candidacy doomed Taft to defeat at the hands of Woodrow Wilson. The three other single term elected presidents of the past 100 years were victims of economic crises; Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H. Bush. Gerald Ford, the unelected successor to Richard Nixon, is an anomaly in US political history, being in effect Nixon's surrogate and taking the heat for the Watergate scandal.
Will Barack Obama be fated to join the ranks of the one-timers? Though there remain nearly two years until the next presidential election, the prognosis on Obama is becoming increasingly guarded. Absent a severe economic or political crisis, an incumbent president seeking a second term normally enjoys an unassailable advantage over his opponent. Even amid the unpopularity of the Iraq war, George W. Bush was still able to convincingly defeat his Democratic Party challenger in the 2004 presidential contest, Senator John Kerry. However, unless a miraculous economic turnaround occurs, President Obama is likely to enter the 2012 presidential campaign with baggage which may leave him highly vulnerable to a strong challenger from the GOP.
Almost all serious economic forecasts project that America will still be experiencing historically high levels of unemployment in 2012. The Republican Party's midterm election triumph, in particular regaining control of the House of Representatives, points to the acute vulnerability Obama's reelection campaign will face. In addition, the themes that generated excitement in 2008 for Obama's candidacy, such as "change you can believe in," will not be credible factors in 2012, leaving him as the incumbent forced to defend a questionable record in managing the economy, and any defensive posture is unlikely to elicit a memorable theme that will excite the Democratic Party's base and attract independent voters, the latter category crucial for any presidential candidate. In contrast, we are already seeing convincing evidence that the GOP will have an effective grass-roots movement that is excited and motivated by the prospect of ending the Obama presidency in 2012, as evidenced by the phenomenon of the Tea Party.
As dismal a factor as the economy is likely to be in calculating the odds of Barack Obama winning a second term, there are other elements that weaken the prospects of his winning a second term. The unending war in Afghanistan is rapidly being transformed into Obama's version of the Iraq debacle, with a growing proportion of the electorate losing faith in this costly overseas commitment that has become the center of gravity for Obama's war on terror. The continuing war and perception that President Obama has compromised too easily with his Republican congressional opponents has estranged some of his supporters within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. It is not inconceivable that Obama will face a Democratic challenger when he seeks re-nomination as the Party's presidential candidate in 2012. Should that happen, the odds still favor Obama being the Democratic presidential nominee in 2012, however a divisive primary battle would further weaken the 44th president's odds of winning a second term in the White House.
Increasingly, there is talk within Democratic Party circles regarding the steep challenge and mounting obstacles Barack Obama will face in campaigning in 2012 for a second term as president. Among these doomsayers there remains one hope; that the Republican Party will nominate Sarah Palin as its presidential candidate in 2012. Looking at Palin's current level of high negative poll numbers, they see her as a potential gift from Saint Jude, the patron saint of desperate causes. However, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out, Palin may be a far more formidable challenger to Barack Obama than Democratic strategists recognize, especially if America's economic woes persist.
Though undoubtedly campaigning in 2008 with the noblest of intentions, it is looking increasingly likely that Barack Obama will enter the history books as not only a one-term president, but also a valiant but deeply flawed failure.