US president Barack Obama has been on something of a “hot streak” recently. In the last month alone, he visited a federal prison (the first sitting president to do so), the US signed a nuclear deal with Iran, his monumental healthcare law survived scrutiny by the Supreme Court, and he helped formalize diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961. And his somewhat recent support of gay marriage was bolstered when the Supreme Court effectively legalized it across the US, even if he played little to no part in making that happen.
Americans have noticed—according to several polls, Obama’s approval rating climbed to 50% last month for the first time since 2013 (it has since fallen back to around 46%, according to Gallup). So what would happen if he were allowed to run for a third consecutive term?
“I think if I ran, I would win,” he said. “But I can’t.”
That was Obama’s assessment at a meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where in the same line of commentary he warned African leaders of the dangers of “presidents for life.” American presidents have not been able to do so since shortly after the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served three full terms before dying during his fourth in 1945. “The law’s the law,” Obama said.
The two-term limit is a creation of the last century, but it was an unwritten rule dating all the way back to George Washington, who, wanting to revert to ordinary citizenship, refused to run for a third term: ”I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government.”
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting thought experiment. Obama had about a 51% approval rating according to a CNN/ORC poll taken right before his 2012 re-election. If, hypothetically, he could run again in 2016 and maintain an approval rating around 50%, he’d have a legitimate shot at a third term—especially because the crowded Republican field doesn’t have a clear frontrunner.
And then there’s the fact that he has an excellent record in elections: “I have no more campaigns to run,” he said during his 2015 State of the Union address (video), adding, “I know because I won both of them.” Obama dismantled John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, winning 53% of the popular vote to McCain’s 46% and surpassing the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the presidency by nearly 100. He then beat Mitt Romney by similar margins in 2012.
Of course, if Obama were not a lame duck president, and he actually had another campaign to prepare for, he might not be having such a successful second term right now. Outgoing presidents are typically rather ineffective, but Obama has harnessed the freedom that comes with not worrying about getting elected again, and he’s using it to deliver on promises that many criticized him for breaking during his first term.
Republican opposition to Obama’s presidency is also more intense than ever. About 40% of Americans would simply never vote for him, no matter what he does or doesn’t do. It’s unclear if he’d be able to sway crucial independent voters to his side, especially after the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance leaks, controversial drone use in the Middle East, and a perceived weakness on gun control.