Thanks to George Washington, Barack Obama cannot seek a third term, but the president confidently proclaimed this week that he believes he could secure another four years in the White House — a boast some analysts quickly cast as wholly unrealistic, perhaps even politically delusional.
With Mr. Obama looking tired as he limps to the end of his second term, sapped of momentum by a growing string of foreign policy challenges abroad and largely paralyzed by political gridlock at home, analysts say another national election victory would be a long shot at best as the broad coalition of voters who reliably supported him in 2008 and 2012 steadily frays.
“It would be very difficult for Barack Obama to win a third term. He lost independents a long time ago. What’s keeping him afloat is essentially the Democratic base. The Democrats would certainly rally around him, and he would have that support, but we shouldn’t forget he lost 5 million votes from 2008 to 2012. I imagine if he ran again he might lose a couple million more,” said Lara Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University. “His record is even more controversial now than it was in 2012.”
The president made his third-term prediction in a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night when he said it was probably a good thing that he is constitutionally forbidden from serving beyond the eight-year maximum that was the custom until Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four terms, prompting the 22nd Amendment.
Mr. Obama believes voters would re-elect him if given the chance.
“I do,” the president said, though he went on to explain why he could, but shouldn’t, remain commander in chief through 2020.
“On the one hand, I am very proud of what we’ve accomplished and it makes me think, I’d love to do some more. But by the time I’m finished, I think it will be time for me to go. Because there’s a reason why we considered George Washington one of our greatest presidents,” he said. “He set a precedent, saying that when you occupy this seat, it is an extraordinary privilege, but the way our democracy is designed, no one person is indispensable.”
The comparison to Washington underscores how highly the president regards his own record, which he is increasingly highlighting as the end of his term nears.
In recent months, he has started bragging more about the state of the country’s economy, the progress of his health care law and other achievements.
It’s the kind of self-confidence that led him to deliver his 2008 nomination acceptance speech from a Denver football stadium amid Greek columns, and to proclaim himself the embodiment of hope. Republicans, in turn, mocked him by juxtaposing him with scenes of Moses parting the waters in the “Ten Commandments.”
But those heady days are gone, and Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have dropped from stratospheric levels at the beginning of his administration to mediocre in 2012, to struggling now.
That is particularly striking among independents, a key voting constituency.
Just after taking office in 2009, Mr. Obama had a 62 percent approval rating among independents, according to Gallup data. After winning re-election in November 2012, he had 50 percent approval among independents. But just 43 percent of independents approve of the president’s job performance now, according to the most recent Gallup survey.
Beyond those damning numbers — likely fatal to a third Obama campaign — analysts point to other problems.
They say foreign missteps, such as the deteriorating situation and the muddy U.S. policy in Syria, could present insurmountable hurdles, along with basic voter fatigue.
Perhaps even more damaging to Mr. Obama’s third-term theory is that the Democratic coalition he forged in 2008 may be disillusioned with the administration after a lack of progress on, among other things, income inequality, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written on presidential leadership.
“Most presidential administrations wear out their welcome with the American people after eight years, making it a tough sell, short of a serious crisis, to continue an administration beyond that proscribed by the Constitution,” he said. “For President Obama, three factors would prevent a third term: only modest economic growth, Republican disapproval of his term in office and low approval of the Democratic Party. President Obama’s popularity within the party is also questionable since there is a wing of the party that believes he didn’t go far enough on several progressive issues or solve some persistent problems which were ideological priorities.”
Indeed, Mr. Obama’s approval rating among Democrats was above 90 percent when he was re-elected in 2012. Today, it is 82 percent, Gallup data show.
One explanation for the dip is that the Democratic Party, or at least a portion of it, has moved dramatically left, captivated by the progressive anti-Wall Street message delivered by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who is seeking the White House and riding a wave of liberal support as he nips at party front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton’s heels in the polls.
Mr. Sanders made clear during Tuesday night’s presidential primary debate that he would take further action than Mr. Obama on income inequality and other economic issues and believes the Democratic Party must move to the left.
Others in the field believe Mr. Obama still has some electoral magic, at least among Democratic primary voters.
Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama’s 2008 opponent and then his secretary of state, split with him on trade but was overall complimentary of the president. She didn’t shy away from being compared to a third Obama term and lauded his handling of issues such as foreign policy, climate change, race relations and gun control.
“I think that President Obama has been a great moral leader on these issues and has laid out an agenda that has been obstructed by the Republicans at every turn,” she said.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has gone even further. In a campaign fundraising email Tuesday, he argued that the nation needs someone to continue advancing Mr. Obama’s agenda.
“President Obama saved us from a total economic collapse and delivered on important priorities like Obamacare. We now need someone who can carry the ball the rest of the way,” O’Malley deputy campaign director Lis Smith wrote in a memo.
Analysts say that is a smart tactic during the primary, given Mr. Obama’s relative popularity within the party.
“He certainly would win the nomination of his party,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
He also believes the president could prevail in a third term if given the opportunity.
“I think he would stand a decent chance,” he said. “I think he would be the favorite, but he would not be the overwhelming favorite. It would be another close contest in 2016.”