One term or two? U.S. economy is key, experts say

NEW YORK Mon Jan 26, 2009 8:00am EST

NEW YORK Jan 26 (Reuters) - It's always the economy, stupid.

Whether President Barack Obama enjoys one term or two in the White House will depend overwhelmingly on the state of U.S. pocketbooks.

With a daily stream of gloomy economic data, Obama has said he must act quickly to rescue the economy from the worst turmoil in decades. But the new president has plenty of time to help brighten the financial outlook before the next presidential election in November 2012, experts say.

"The truth is it's rare for someone who runs for re-election to get defeated in the absence of economic turmoil," said Jeremy Mayer, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. "There are tremendous advantages to incumbency."

The key is what happens in the months before voters head to the polls, experts said.

"The one thing you want to avoid if you want to be re-elected is a bad election-year economy," said Allan Lichtman, presidential historian at American University in Washington.

Only 12 presidents have served a single elected term -- and just two have failed to win a second term since the Great Depression -- Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.

Further back was Herbert Hoover, whose lone term ended in 1933 as the country was locked in the Depression.

"What they had in common, among other things, was a bad economy," said Lichtman.

One-term presidents also tend to lack vision, be poor communicators and fail to inspire voters, Lichtman said.

So far, Obama seems to most observers not to suffer from those particular failings.

INSPIRING COMMUNICATORS

In fact, U.S. presidents considered to be the most inspiring communicators used an ailing economy to win their presidencies in the first place.

Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 coined the phrase "It's the economy, stupid," and Ronald Reagan in 1980 wooed voters by asking if they were better off than they were four years earlier.

Although Obama's keeping his job may depend on how many Americans lose theirs, Lichtman cautioned that his role steering the financial ship can be quite limited.

"People expect the president, rightly or wrongly, to guide the economy in such a way as to provide prosperity," he said. "But the president does not control the economy. He can only influence the economy."

Less significant factors in determining a one- or two-term presidency include an intraparty challenge. Democratic challenger Edward Kennedy damaged fellow Democrat Carter's shot at re-election, and Republican challenger Pat Buchanan hurt fellow Republican George H.W. Bush.

"If you want to look for signs of trouble, if Obama loses an important wing of his party, the left, the center, .... then he could face an intraparty challenge," Mayer said.

The first test at the polls for Obama will come in 2010, when all seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, one-third of the U.S. Senate and many state governors' mansions will be up for grabs.

"If things get a lot worse in '09 and '10, Democrats will take a hit in the midterms. But if we start to see a recovery in 2011, Obama will get the credit for that," said Mayer. "It's when the pain comes and who's to blame."

(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)

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