Obama, Incumbency and 2015

08 Nov 2012

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When I arrived Washington DC on Sunday, the mood in the city reminded me of the same period in November 2004 when I was also in the United States to observe the election between then incumbent Republican President George Bush and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry. While most Americans were not enthusiastic about the prospect of a Bush second term back then, it was also obvious that they didn’t see Kerry as a viable alternative. At the end, they stood by the devil they knew, to borrow from the phrase used last week by The Economist in endorsing President Barack Obama for a second term.

Even though he came to office amid high expectations in January 2009, President Obama has found it very difficult to deliver on the American economy which is still in bad shape, perhaps due to no fault of his given what he inherited. When such an accomplished orator also faltered at the first but very crucial presidential debate, then the fears became heightened that Obama could end up as another one-term president. It was such a cliff-hanger that the result from Dixville Notch, (the New Hampshire village where the first votes are traditionally cast after midnight on Election Day) recorded, for the first time in history, a tie: five votes each for Obama and Republican challenger, former Governor Mitt Romney. Yet four years ago in the same Dixville Notch, Obama defeated Senator John McCain by 15 votes to six!

With everything seeming to be going against him, Obama on the eve of the election also had to contend with a superstition called the “Redskins Rule.” According to this superstition, an incumbent president always loses whenever the Washington-based Redskins football team lost their home game preceding the election (as they did last Sunday against Carolina Panthers). That record lasted 70 years until it was broken in 2004 by Bush. Well, on Tuesday, Obama also broke the “Rule” by defeating Romney in a contest that will go down as one of the most dramatic and unpredictable in history.

But at the end, it was not so much a surprise that Obama won, having carefully built, over a period of four years, critical constituencies like the Latinos, the African-Americans, the gays and lesbians, the immigrants, the low-income earners, and other such minority groups who could only envision an unsecure future under a President Romney. According to George C. Edward, author of the book, “Governing by Campaigning”, Obama “essentially framed the election as a choice, not a referendum. His message was that ‘you may not like me, but Romney’s a risky choice; he’s out of touch’ ”. But then Obama could successfully weave such a campaign narrative because he was the sitting president, the same way Bush successfully projected Kerry as untrustworthy to be elected commander-in-chief in 2004. While Bush relied on security as his anchor, Obama deployed social issues, as well the economy in critical areas of the country where such narrative rhymed with public sentiment.

Now that the election is over, what I find very revealing is that even in the United States incumbency could still be a strong game-changer. In his pre-election column titled, “Beware of the incumbent advantage” in USA Today, Ross Baker argued that “history demonstrates that it is a dauntingly difficult job to unseat an incumbent president who is seeking a second term. Indeed, the number of presidents who have won a second term is almost twice the number of those who have failed to gain the favour of voters a second time.”

Now, if incumbency could still confer some advantage under a system where the president does not have the key to the till, where the rules of engagement dictate a level-playing field and where the contest is generally free and fair, one can then wonder what would happen under our own system where the incumbent controls all the resources and is not bound by strict rules. While the Nigerian and the American political circumstances are markedly different, there are compelling lessons for our political office seekers, especially as we move towards the 2015 general elections.

It is indeed telling that in the 19th century only five American incumbents failed to secure second term in office. John Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in 1800; John Quincy Adams lost to Andrew Jackson in 1828; while Martin Van Buren was ousted by William Henry Harrison in 1840. Incidentally, Grover Cleveland who lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 went on to defeat his successor four years later in 1892. Being the only man elected twice with another president in-between, Cleveland was 22nd and 24thpresidents and this accounts for why Obama is the 43rd person to be American president but the 44th president.

In the 20thcentury, there were only four incumbents who failed in their bids for second term: William Taft was defeated by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 while Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter himself was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the second term aspiration of George H.W. Bush was derailed in 1992 by Bill Clinton. There were of course incumbent presidents who did not win their parties’ nomination for a second term. They included John Tyler (1844); Millard Fillmore (1852); Franklin Pierce (1856); James Buchanan (1860); Andrew Johnson (1868) and Chester Alan Arthur (1884). Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were among the six presidents who did not seek second term.

I am aware that being a sitting president may have played only a small role in Obama’s re-election on Tuesday but I have deliberately zeroed in on the incumbency factor essentially because of its significance to presidential elections in Africa, as I highlighted in my 2011 research paper which any interested readers can assess on But then are we not comparing apples and oranges?

Unlike in our country, politics in the US is about issues, programmes, values and even the character of the contenders but one of the constants is that campaign rhetoric is usually dominated by the taxes certain categories of Americans would have to pay under each of the candidates seeking their votes. In our country, politicians make all manner of promises without demanding anything of citizens. They know it’s all lies; we know it’s all lies but we always go along with this fraud. The central issue about representation, which democracy is all about, is taxation, except in Nigeria!

While I intend to explore some of those issues another day, what is important to reiterate here is that anybody who intends to be president of Nigeria in 2015 is almost too late if his/her campaign has not started. Except of course he is the incumbent. President Goodluck Jonathan has not said he would run but that he has also not said he would not is instructive enough. This is not to say that the incumbent cannot be defeated, even in Nigeria, the point being made here is that it is not an easy task and that it requires more serious work of mobilising people and resources around common platforms. In places where incumbents have been defeated in Africa, as I highlighted in my paper mentioned above, the path to success is usually through a coalition of credible opposition which is never easy to forge.

The enduring lesson of Obama’s victory on Tuesday despite daunting odds was that he could build a coalition of different segments of the American society and eventually got them to the polls. The way things stand today in Nigeria, there is no indication that our politicians understand the meaning and demands of taking time and efforts to build such coalitions, even of disaffected people. I hope that will change in the days and weeks ahead.

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