President Obama isn’t afraid to go out and give speeches lambasting the presumptive Republican nominee for president in this year’s election, Donald Trump. You can tell, then, that he’s eager for the Democratic Party to have a “presumptive” nominee so that he can campaign on her behalf, too, even if we don’t know yet who she’s going to be.
But that makes for an interesting observation. It might once have been more commonplace, but it has been a really long time since the last time a sitting president actually campaigned on behalf of the candidate chosen by his party to be his successor.
And by that I mean the last time it happened was in the year 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt campaigned on behalf of William Howard Taft. (For the purposes of this discussion we don’t need to get into the falling out between the two men as a result of Taft’s policies….)
Since then, there have been eight sitting presidents who were not seeking reelection on their own (four who were constrained by the 22nd amendment from running again and four who simply chose not to run again) and none of them campaigned on behalf of their successors.
First up was Woodrow Wilson in 1920. He probably would have (and could have) campaigned for James Cox but his health was failing so you can’t blame him for not wanting to deal with the stresses of the campaign trail.
Then came “Silent Cal” Coolidge in 1928. Like Wilson eight years earlier, he probably could have helped Herbert Hoover (who in hindsight didn’t need it) but he hated campaigning.
Fast forward 24 years to 1952 when Truman chose not to seek another term. He almost definitely perceived his own low poll numbers as being more of a harm than a benefit to Adlai Stevenson. In hindsight, we can’t know if Truman would have helped or hurt.
Which brings us to 1960, when popular outgoing President Eisenhower almost definitely could have helped Richard Nixon with his election chances. Except that Ike hated Nixon and everyone knew it.
And then there was 1968, the most recent time in American history when a president was eligible to seek reelection and chose not to. LBJ may have been a lot of things but he wasn’t stupid and he knew that the mess that was Vietnam already doomed his own political ambitions so he wisely stayed out of the fray on behalf of Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey would have lost regardless.
Moving on to twenty years later, Ronald Reagan’s health pretty much precluded him from helping George H W Bush. He was already our oldest president so we can’t really fault him for it. Bush, like Hoover sixty years earlier, didn’t need the help anyway.
One of the many what-if scenarios that Al Gore undoubtedly ought to have asked himself about the 2000 election, is whether he did the right thing by asking Bill Clinton not to campaign for him. Gore must have seen the Clinton scandals (including the impeachment as more of a negative despite Clinton’s generally positive approval ratings…) Of the eight elections I’m mentioning in this posting, I suspect this one is most likely to have made a difference if the president had campaigned for his successor.
In 2008, George W Bush’s poll numbers were worse than Truman’s were in 1952, so he probably wouldn’t have helped John McCain anyway.
So we have a basis for comparison between 2016 and 1908. Let’s just see how much president Obama can help the democratic nominee, whoever she might be.