WASHINGTON, July 31, 2015 — Speaking in Ethiopia this week, President Barack Obama lectured an audience of African diplomats against having a “president for life.” He used the constitutional limits on his own office as an example.
“I actually think I’m a pretty good president,” Mr. Obama told diplomats from across Africa, departing from his prepared text to present himself as a model for giving up power when term limits are reached. “I think if I ran, I could win.”
“There’s a lot that I’d like to do to keep America moving,” he added.
“But the law is the law, and no person is above the law, not even the president.”
Is Obama delusional? Could he really win a third term if he were allowed to run?
Conservatives might scoff at the idea. After all, the president’s sluggish job approval and favorability ratings suggest America wouldn’t be keen on keeping him around. His signature domestic accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — remains unpopular; ditto for the nuclear pact with Iran, his main foreign policy accomplishment. If Obama can’t credibly brag about those items, the logic goes, his platform would be especially weak.
All of this fits in with the lull many two-term presidents suffer late in the second term. When it comes to their commanders in chief, American voters have a notorious seven-year itch.
Yet consider the president’s status in early 2012. Obamacare was unpopular then, too. The president’s favorability and job approval numbers weren’t all that much better at the beginning of that cycle as they are now. Despite public polling that showed him facing a lukewarm electorate, Obama won his second term on the back of a sophisticated grassroots campaign that figured out where his supporters were, how to talk to them and how to make sure they voted on Election Day.
Is there any doubt that, if motivated and constitutionally permitted, Team Obama could gear up a similar effort in 2016? His poll numbers among Democrats and self-identified liberals remain strong enough that he could expect a strong base of support. There current political environment includes discussion of enough issues, from police brutality to minimum wage increases, for a well-organized campaign to stoke interest in low-propensity voters. In other words, there are opportunities to widen his electorate beyond his base and bring new voters to the polls. And after running two campaigns which were highly effective in terms of technique, it isn’t such a stretch to think that Obama could shake enough votes out of America to win in 2016.
Working against Obama are two important factors. The first is that he wouldn’t have Mitt Romney to push around anymore. The former one-term governor of Massachusetts was the best of a lackluster field in 2012. But exit polls showed that Romney couldn’t connect with voters, even if they saw him as more competent than Obama; his favorability rating just before the election hovered appropriately at 47 percent.
Would current top-tier Republican candidates do better? Obviously, the world will never know for sure, but there are credible reasons to think they would connect better than Romney. And with Romney’s campaign in the rearview mirror, many have made strategic and tactical decisions to prioritize data collection and analysis to fuel intense identification and turnout operations.
Second is the bottom dropping out of Obama’s approval ratings specifically when it comes to foreign policy, most likely due in large part to the nuclear deal with Iran. If Americans believe Obama handed an enemy regime a pathway to nuclear weaponization, it opens up a new and possibly damning area of criticism.
Facing a stronger opponent than he ever has before and an electorate fatigued by his eight years in office, Obama’s winning a third term would be an uphill climb.
Still, the Obama campaigns of both 2008 and 2012 proved themselves smart, nimble, and adaptable. Despite all the reasons the political winds would be against him, would you bet against Obama in 2016?
It’s not a joke: If not for term limits, a third Obama term would be a very real possibility.