America's one-term White House

Since the United States has not had a president serve a full eight years since Eisenhower, people have come to think that it is near impossible for anyone, even Ronald Reagan, to revive the ''two-term tradition.''

The point should be made without overstating it. Yes, a presidential candidate does enjoy some advantages as an incumbent: instant recognition, full access to government research resources, the ability to dominate events, constant media exposure, and a ready-made party organizational structure at his disposal. And regardless of his real accomplishments, an incumbent is supposed to benefit from an enormous public relations machine that can show a president as a man of action, as a crisis manager, as a traveling statesman, and as commander-in-chief. A president and his party are also in a better position to raise funds.

American politicians as a whole enjoy considerable incumbency advantages. Thus House members in recent years have a 94 percent chance of reelection, Senate members, about 84 percent, state legislators enjoy about a 90 percent chance of succeeding themselves, and governors have aboout a 70 percent chance of reelection when this is permitted by state constitutuins. Only presidents have a 50 percent or worse chance of getting their job back for a second full term.

Incumbency, however, can be just as much a burden as an advantage. The statistical record bears this out - especially for presidents.

Thus, since 1828 - when America's present nominating and party structure were set in place - more than half of the presidents who sought renomination and reelection have been rejected. Five were not renominated (Pierce, Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Arthur). Eight were denied reelection (J. Q. Adams , Van Buren, Cleveland, B. Harrison, Taft, Hoover, Ford, and Carter). And just 12 presidents were successful incumbents (counting FDR as one - Jackson, Lincoln , Grant, McKinley, Wilson, FDR, Eisenhower, Nixon, TR, Coolidge, Truman, and LBJ). The latter four, it might be noted, were running for the first time - even though they were incumbents.

Looked at another way, it is plain that Americans have a one-term tradition, not a two-term tradition. Twenty-seven presidents (of the 39 prior to Reagan) have served four years or less. Twenty-two were elected to a single term. Five, like Ford, were never elected at all - and served only a partial term. Only 12 were elected to two terms (or in the case of FDR, even more terms). Of this 12, five served during the first 50 years of the Republic.

For the first quarter of the Republic we most assuredly did have a ''two-term tradition'' (five of seven did it). Since then a one-term tradition is normal - save, for the most part, in times of war or crisis (Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, FDR, LBJ, and Nixon). Two Republican hero-generals also won reelection (Grant and Ike).

Generally Americans are a harsh judge of incumbent presidents. We are likely to cast our votes based more on retrospective judgment than prospective judgment. Our inflated expectations are such that we expect our president to be able to lead us, the almost chosen people, to the almost promised land.

An incumbent is necessarily on the defensive; his record is under detailed scrutiny, his administration's every flaw and unfulfilled promise (e.g. ''I'll balance the budget'') exposed to microscopic examination. The American people can conveniently, if often unfairly, blame a whole range of problems on a president, whereas the astute challenger presents a smaller target. A challenger can take the offensive and try to convince the voters that he would do better.

The incumbent is often judged against the idealized model of the perfect president and, not unnaturally, found wanting. He may at times be the symbol of the nation's pride, but he can just as readily be the nation's most convenient scapegoat. Few incumbents, no matter how skilled they are as communicators, can match the legendary images of the storybook presidents we all carry around in our minds. Our imagination has always been filled by those larger-than-life, nine-foot-tall, charismatic leaders who tower above all their peers. No matter that this is a sugar-coated, romanticized nostalgia.

If the incumbent gains from his image as an experienced ''statesman,'' he often loses from his election-year image as a ''politician.'' A political motive is easily ascribed to almost everything the incumbent does. Presidents who seem to be at all preoccupied with putting their reelection needs ahead of the public interest suffer ac-cordingly.

On balance, it appears that although the advantage often lies with the incumbent, particularly in the media age, these advantages are not nearly so overwhelming as once may have been the case. The extent to which incumbency can be translated into both renomination and reelection depends on several factors that plainly must be examined in context - the state of the economy, party strength, the incumbent's political character, and the extent to which the president is thought to have a successful record.

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