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Hillary and the Obama factor

A closer look at the history does suggest that the public’s appetite for change increases in direct relation to how long one party has been in control.

If there’s one particular reason to doubt whether Hillary Clinton will succeed in her second presidential bid, it’s this: Voters really do seem to get restless when one party has been running the White House for two terms.

This has been the case since the Democrats’ two-decade grip on the executive branch – four winning bids by Franklin Roosevelt and one by Harry Truman – was ended by the election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Since then, the two parties have mostly traded eight-year stints of White House control, with only two breaks in the pattern: Democrat Jimmy Carter, who managed to hold the presidency for just one term before Ronald Reagan replaced him; and George H.W. Bush, whose 1988 victory to succeed Reagan gave the GOP three straight national victories. Other than that, it’s been two terms on/two terms off for each party for more than 60 years now.

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Still, there’s plenty of room for Clinton to defy history. And to judge from the early poll numbers, which show her leading her likely GOP foes by solid margins nationally and far outpacing them in her personal favorability rating, she enters this race in an enviable position. But a closer look at the history does suggest that the public’s appetite for change increases in direct relation to how long one party has been in control.

Sometimes, it’s easy to see. In 2008, for instance, George W. Bush was saddled with a devastating job approval rating as he completed his second term, his presidency marked by spiraling chaos in Iraq, a bungled Katrina response and an economic downturn ultimately punctuated by the Wall Street meltdown. It created a hopeless situation for John McCain, the GOP’s ‘08 nominee. Despite his campaign’s best efforts to ignore Bush and despite McCain’s own history as a very public thorn in Bush’s side, voters proved resistant to the idea of handing anyone from Bush’s party four more years and instead gave Barack Obama the biggest popular mandate for any Democrat since LBJ.

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Other times, it’s more complicated – like in 2000. That’s when Al Gore faced a dilemma that he never really resolved: how to handle Bill Clinton. On the one hand, Clinton’s job approval rating was sky-high, cracking 60% in many polls. On the other hand, voters held their president in jarringly low personal regard, thanks to the Monica Lewinsky scandal (which reinforced the “Slick Willie” image he’d battled since his initial campaign in 1992). An ABC News poll just before the 2000 election captured Americans’ conflicted feelings toward the Clinton presidency perfectly. By a 62-37% margin, they approved of his policies and programs. But by a 55-33% spread, they had an unfavorable view of him as a person.

Gore and his team struggled with how to handle this, and the debate became a press fixation. Should they deputize Clinton, a world-class campaigner, to barnstorm the key states and remind voters of the peace and prosperity the country was enjoying? Or would that only rile up their resentment of Clinton’s behavior, and play right into the hands of George W. Bush and his pledge to “restore honor and dignity to the White House?” Ultimately, Clinton found himself largely sidelined down the home stretch, a tactical decision that is still argued about today.

Gore, of course, did end up winning the popular vote in 2000, losing out on the presidency only in the Electoral College. But given the state of the economy – unemployment stood at just 3.9% in the final pre-election reading, with the country enjoying the longest sustained period of growth in its history – the hesitation of so many Americans to reward the Democrats with a third term is striking.  

In the case of Clinton, her campaign is pointing – not surprisingly – to the example of 1988, when the first Bush handily defeated Michael Dukakis, carrying 40 states and securing a third consecutive White House term for Republicans. How analogous to the current moment is that election?

Like Clinton now, Bush was seeking to replace a two-term president who was beloved by the base of their party. And just as Clinton ran against Barack Obama in 2008 before mending fences and joining his administration, Bush had aggressively competed with Reagan in the 1980 GOP primaries before becoming his vice president. Another similarity: Obama’s approval rating sits at 47% in the most recent Gallup poll. At this same point in the 1988 cycle, Reagan was at 48.

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But here’s the catch: That middling Reagan number was the product of the Iran-Contra scandal, which broke in late 1986 and virtually overnight cut his approval rating by nearly 20 points. Before Iran-Contra, Reagan had been a supremely popular president, reelected in a 49-state landslide in 1984. And as the 1988 campaign played out, Reagan regained much of that support. His approval rating in Gallup’s polls was back in the mid-50s by the fall of ’88, and in other polls he fared even better. In other words, there was ultimately a reservoir of goodwill toward Reagan that Bush – who recognized all the way that his fortunes were tied to his boss’ standing – was able to tap. (That said, there were clear signs that the public was restless and open to change, which is why the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, was able to build a 17-point lead at one point, before succumbing to a highly effective GOP attack campaign.)

In contrast to Reagan, Obama’s approval rating has been remarkably stable. Periodically, it will edge over 50% in a few polls and sometimes it will fall to the low 40s; but for years now it has sat consistently within that range, generally hovering right around where it is now.

From Hillary’s standpoint, there’s good and bad news in this. On the plus side, there’s little reason to suspect the floor will fall out from under Obama in the next 19 months – that he’ll suddenly plummet to Bush 43 depths and become an unmitigated albatross. But there’s also little reason to suspect his numbers will suddenly leap up to where Reagan’s were on Election Day ’88. He’s likely to stay right where he is.

For now, the Clinton campaign is putting out word that she’ll embrace her ties to Obama and “that she intends to turn to him as one of her most important allies and advocates,” according to The New York TimesThis makes sense, especially when you consider that Clinton doesn’t want to stir up any trouble within her party, where Obama’s approval rating is over 80%. It also makes sense when you consider the evolution of American politics, where a deep partisan divide along cultural, demographic and geographic lines has emerged. Obama’s victories owe as much to turning out the core of Blue America as they do to winning over swing voters. To replicate this success, Clinton will need to be close to him. The fact that her name is itself a political brand may also prove helpful, an unspoken reassurance to swing voters who aren’t wild about Obama.  

At the same time, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 59% of voters say they will back the candidate who will bring the greatest change in 2016. Back in 2008 – when war fatigue was rampant, the economy was cratering, and the country couldn’t wait to move on from George W. Bush – that number was 55%. There’s restiveness in the air, and as the likely candidate of the party that’s owned the White House for two years, that should make Clinton at least a little uneasy.