Obama and Jackson: Presidential Elections

In the end it didn’t turn out to be quite as close as the pundits suspected. President Barack Obama secured his second term in office with 303 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 206. Despite the bullishness of various Republican talking heads, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia all ended up in the Democratic column; Florida might still join them.

Needless to say, Obama’s long-term historical reputation will greatly depend on the course of his second administration. There are plenty of challenges. Nonetheless, he has already secured an enviable place in presidential electoral history, becoming only the third Democratic candidate ever to secure more than fifty percent of the popular vote in successive elections. Not even everyone’s favourite Arkansas saxophonist, Bill Clinton, managed that.

The other two? Franklin D. Roosevelt – progenitor of the New Deal and liberal hero par excellence – secured four successive 50%-plus results between 1932 and 1944. His drive, political acumen and pragmatism brought reforms that dulled the sharp edge of the Great Depression and fundamentally remoulded the relationship between American business and the state. This, married with his wartime leadership and his blueprints for a post-war world of collective security and stable economic reconstruction, regularly leave FDR at or near the top of historians’ rankings of American presidents.

The other is Andrew Jackson. Jackson, the victor in 1828 and 1832, is generally considered to have been the first Democratic president. A Tennesseean slaveholder committed to the dismantling of the United States’ federal banking system and the forcible relocation of Native American tribes, Jackson did as much as anyone to forge a new, more modern form of partisan politics in the United States. Given his proclivities, it’s unsurprising that he’s remembered somewhat less favourably than FDR.

But Andrew Jackson’s name had already cropped up during this election season. As the polls tightened in the weeks prior to the election, pundits asked what would happen if Obama and Romney both secured 269 electoral votes. The Constitution provides an answer. If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives has the responsibility of determining the winner. This had happened in 1824 when Jackson, who had secured a plurality of the popular vote, was passed over when his two great rivals, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, colluded to deny him the presidency. Clay was made Adams’s Secretary of State; Jacksonians screamed that there had been a ‘corrupt bargain’ to stymie the people’s will. Jackson’s anger fuelled his successful campaign four years later.

One further consideration: both Jackson’s and FDR’s presidencies generated fierce, personal opposition. And in both instances their opponents struggled to articulate a coherent, electorally-viable response. But all this is so much history. At least in electoral terms, Obama joins the heavyweights, emulating Jackson’s more impressive electoral showings rather than his embittering experience of the 1824 contest.

Dr David Sim

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