There is a reason why the party in control of the White House has only managed to retain it for three consecutive terms once in the post-war period. In fact, there are several reasons. There have been many scholarly efforts to identify those factors, which range from partisan voter dissatisfaction to the business cycle and recessionary pressures on the economy to the state of international affairs. No doubt, all of these dynamics contribute to the relative incline of the hill a two-term incumbent president’s chosen successor must climb in order to reach the White House. The factor that most often prevents a candidate from succeeding a president of the same party, however, is that very president.

That fact was acknowledged by an unlikely source on Tuesday: the White House. As the minutes trickled away ahead of the first Democratic presidential debate, all eyes fell on Vice President Joe Biden. Tonight will be the first and last time that the Democratic candidates will gather for a prime time debate on a weekday night before the first votes in the presidential cycle are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden’s already substantial obstacles will become harder to surmount should he wait to get into the race until after tonight. With the will he/won’t he speculation reaching a fever pitch, the White House press corps took their inquiries about Biden’s political future to the briefing room. In tamping down the conjecture about Biden’s presidential aspirations, though, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest perhaps inadvertently articulated precisely why it is so difficult for the in-party to secure a third consecutive presidential term.

When Earnest was asked if Biden, as the sitting vice president, would be the most logical choice to carry the president’s policies and message forward into 2017 and beyond, the press secretary suggested that Biden would quickly jettison his loyalty to Barack Obama once he jumped into the race.

“In any presidential election, there will be an obligation placed on each of the candidates to clearly articulate their views, and priorities, and policies. And that means they’re going to need to distinguish themselves among each other, but also between themselves and the incumbent,” Earnest said. “That’s part of any presidential race.”

“No matter how good the first two terms have been, nobody’s going to run a successful campaign predicated on essentially a third term,” he added. “Each of these candidates is going to have to go out and make their own independent case. And if Vice President Biden decides to get in the race, he’ll have to do the same thing.”

If you are starting to get the impression from Earnest that Biden has only been carrying Obama’s water because he served as his vice president, the press secretary went ahead and communicated that fact outright. “The reason that he right now, you know, has the – has articulated the same kind of positions the president sought to advance is because he’s a loyal vice president,” Earnest insisted. “It’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re vice president.”

Earnest previewed some unnamed “policy areas where he differs with” the White House, but he left it at that.

And this is the key point: Voter anxiety is such after eight years that the in-party’s candidate is more often than not compelled to undermine the party’s case for its continued stewardship of national affairs.

Hillary Clinton has been involved in the process of distancing herself from the current president since the summer of last year, when she articulated her opposition to Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis and his refusal to authorize the training and arming of moderate anti-Assad rebels earlier on in the conflict. That distancing accelerated last week when Clinton claimed unconvincingly that she now opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. Clinton’s newfound opposition to that trade agreement is hard to believe, but the activist grassroots wing of the Democratic Party’s frustration with that deal is not. Nor is their dissatisfaction with Obama’s handling of the economy, his failure to impose penalties on Wall Street elites following the financial crisis of 2008, or the growing problem they identify as income inequality. By courting the Democratic Party’s liberal wing, Hillary Clinton is legitimizing their grievances. In doing so, she is undermining the case for continued Democratic governance. If the Democratic Party cannot successfully achieve its own objectives after eight years in the White House, the thinking goes, why should it have eight more?

Writing for The Federalist over 13 months ago, Redstate’s Dan McLaughlin performed a detailed analysis of the myriad factors that often prohibit the in-party’s candidate from securing a third term in the White House. “While each election tells a different story, they all support the common theme that the years after an incumbent’s re-election are fertile ground for growing the opposition faster than the incumbent can keep up, as its coalition either fractures or fails to win new converts beyond its base,” he wrote. Electoral politics is not a zero-sum game, and the splintering of the Democratic coalition does not automatically yield the growth of the Republican voting base. It does, however, hold that this rupturing produces in the in-party’s voters enough dissatisfaction to yield a victory for the relatively more united opposition party’s voters.

The White House has now acknowledged that the president’s administration is so unpopular that any of their would-be successors must necessarily explain why they would be radically different in office. For Republican’s, that’s easy. It’s going to be a much harder hill to climb for a woman who served as the chief executor of this president’s foreign policy for four years.

Third term
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