Why you should care

Because America is due for a one-term president, and her name might be Hillary Clinton. 

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It’s not easy to take the baton from a two-term president, particularly one who has become a sitting political icon in your own party. Twenty-eight years ago, President Ronald Reagan, much like President Obama last month, did his best at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans to summon all of the momentum and enthusiasm his presidency had generated and deliver it into the electoral lap of the candidate who had waged war against him in a bitter primary fight eight years earlier.

That successor, George H.W. Bush, might have been able to win Reagan’s “third term” in 1988, but he could not muster a fourth, as Democrat Bill Clinton put an end to the Republicans’ 12-year White House streak. In 2020, it will have been more than a quarter-century since America’s last one-term president, and another Clinton — if she prevails over Donald Trump, as looks increasingly likely — could face the other end of that dreaded 12-year itch. Could Clinton, like Bush, find herself one-and-done in 2020?

The strongest argument against Clinton: The former first lady, senator and secretary of state is the embodiment of the status quo before an electorate that is desperate for change.

In the broad scope of American history, second-term presidents are not all that common: Almost two-thirds of presidents in the past 200 years have not been reelected. But in more recent history, the failed one-termer is a far rarer creature. Of those presidents seeking reelection since World War II, only Bush and Jimmy Carter have been unsuccessful. “Current presidents, with the power of the administrative state behind them — as well as their ability to master modern media — generally serve two terms instead of one,” says Northeastern University politics professor Daniel Urman. “That’s not an accident.”

Nonetheless, there are several reasons why Clinton, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, could struggle in 2020 — beyond just the challenge for one party to pull off a 16-year single-party run in the White House, which would be the longest since Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman teamed up for 20 from 1933 to 1953.

The strongest argument against Clinton prevailing in four years is the same one she faces this year: The former first lady, senator and secretary of state is the embodiment of the status quo before an electorate that — as the insurgent candidacies of Trump and Bernie Sanders demonstrate — is desperate for change. Although she would be a history-making president, Clinton is unavoidably part of the political establishment, and her policy agenda would represent much more of a continuation of the present administration’s than the more radical break both the right and the left crave in America. It will take a lot of work to even begin to reverse that impression over four years, and the itch for change might only fester more.

Clinton is also a highly polarizing and divisive candidate, one viewed as a “lesser evil” even by many who support her, not to mention one who would have record unfavorability numbers were it not that her opponent fares even worse. If she’s up against a more disciplined and likable Republican opponent than Trump in 2020 — as close to a certainty as you will ever get in politics — then she could face a large “favorability gap” from the start. Even with a landslide victory over Trump, Clinton’s low favorability levels could also mean a weaker “mandate” to start her presidency than other big winners have enjoyed in the past.

For Clinton in 2020, just as for every incumbent president seeking reelection, it could come down to four words …

And if you think things are divisive now, just wait until four more fractious years have passed, and the Republicans in Congress, led by potential 2020 opponents like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan, have dug in their heels just as fiercely as they have over the past eight years. Efforts to bridge that divide and get legislation through a GOP House could backfire, alienating her base just as Bush Sr. alienated his when he compromised with Democrats and broke his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge. With a certain level of latent dissatisfaction likely to persist among Sanders voters post-2016, Clintonian compromises along the lines her husband pursued with welfare and criminal justice reform in the 1990s could prompt a progressive backlash — and perhaps even a challenge in 2020 from a more liberal standard-bearer like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in the way conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan rose to challenge Bush in 1992.

Clinton’s fate, however, might well depend less on personal favorability and internal political dynamics than on significant external developments, and how she responds to them. Clinton’s potential reelection, says Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, could hinge on the status of the following three important areas come 2020: U.S. economic growth; the global security situation, including threats from ISIS and Putin; and race relations and police shootings at home. In particular, if the economy is still growing into the final 16 months of her first term, says Schmidt, Clinton “will have a fairly easy job arguing that it would be madness to vote for Ted Cruz by ‘changing horses in the middle of the stream.’”

In other words, for Clinton in 2020, just as for every incumbent president seeking reelection, it could come down to those four words first uttered by Clinton aide James Carville in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

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