If Barack Obama had run again in 2016, would you have voted for him?
I’m pretty sure I would have. The reasons why say a lot about our politics and our democracy
As unpleasant as it may be, pretend it’s the summer of 2016. Despite having clinched the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton has been forced to drop out of the presidential race a few weeks before the party’s convention in Philadelphia. As party leader, President Barack Obama is pondering his next step. He’s confident Bernie Sanders can’t defeat Donald Trump. Obama knows how difficult the job of president is and understands the risks of a Trump victory, but he also recognizes the importance of his country’s tradition of limiting presidents to two terms in office.
After weighing the trade-offs, at the Democratic National Convention that year Obama announces he’ll stand for a third term. Somehow, having found a workaround to the twenty-second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he ends up on the ballot.
A few months later, you show up at your polling place. You support the Democratic platform and oppose Trump, but you’re uneasy about casting a vote to undermine one of America’s most celebrated traditions. What do you do? Do you vote to give a third term to a president for only the second time in the history of the country? Or do you refuse, making a small but righteous stand in defense of precedent and the Constitution?
The opening line of the twenty-second amendment is unambiguous: “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice.” Of all America’s founding anecdotes, few exemplify our commitment to tradition as strongly as the two-term precedent established by George Washington’s decision to step down in 1796. The fact that the twenty-second amendment was not even proposed until 1944, nearly a century and a half after Washington left office, underscores how the rule of law in American democracy has long been supplemented and supported by unwritten understandings.
For many of us, the chaos of the last few years has served as a glaring reminder of the importance of these democratic traditions — and the immense discretion our system gives individual leaders to uphold, bend, or disregard them. We claim to revere these norms. Yet during the 2016 campaign countless participants in American democracy, from regular voters to prominent political figures, were willing to condone near-daily norm-shattering from the Trump campaign.
The world doesn’t need any more hot takes on the last election (though I’ve offered mine). From racial resentment to tribal loyalty to economic self-interest, it’s easy to list reasons why people voted for Donald Trump. But why didn’t the reasons to vote against him carry more weight? I don’t think it was naive to have hoped for stronger resistance to his candidacy from “traditional” GOP voters, not just the #NeverTrump types.
In the privacy of the voting booth, these conservatives could’ve quietly rejected Trump’s shameless disregard for the political norms they used to champion. Even if they strongly supported the Republican party platform and were terrified by the prospect of a Clinton victory, one might’ve expected that the “at least he’ll put the right people on the Supreme Court” bargain wouldn’t legitimize a candidate so contemptuous of longstanding democratic traditions.
During the GOP primary fight, plenty of Republicans noted Trump’s unique threat to American democracy. Many of the people who voted for Trump knew the history of how democracies die, to quote the title of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s recent book. They understood that our democracy has long been sustained by both legal constraints and adherence to norms. In 2016, they knew all of this, and yet they acquiesced to it. They voted for it. To this day, they enable it. How do they justify it?
How our political system as a whole supported the rise of Donald Trump is a decades-long discussion. But how individual human beings responded to it is something I, as an individual human being myself, might be able to better understand. If a beloved Democratic figure were willingly subverting an American precedent previously considered sacrosanct, how would I respond? Returning to the thought experiment with which we began, would I have voted to give President Obama four more years?
If I’m being honest, the answer is probably yes. And despite this scenario’s hypothetical, counterfactual nature, that answer reveals (to me, at least) three lessons about our politics today. If American democracy is to return to its foundation of norms, laws, and institutions, it’s critical that we take these lessons to heart — just as many of those seeking to undermine the system already have.
The first lesson: More than we like to admit, democratic norms are fragile, and nearly all of us are capable of violating them under the right circumstances. These norms rely entirely on the compliance and buy-in of individual human beings. If someone in a position of power chooses not to comply, and if that person manages to earn and sustain enough public support, there’s little anyone can do about it.
If Obama decided to stand for a third term in 2016, he’d have faced howls of outrage from Republicans and pundits, scorn from plenty in his own party, and possibly even opposition from the courts. But with enough public and institutional support, it seems decently likely that his name could have made it to the ballot — and that he could have won.
The second lesson is that political inertia is incredibly strong, often much stronger than the shame of public condemnation and outrage. During the 2016 campaign, for instance, the “system,” from voters to politicians to pundits, came to accept that Donald Trump wouldn’t release his tax returns and that Merrick Garland wouldn’t make it to the Supreme Court.
In each case, opponents protested righteously. The indignation was often bipartisan. But the system didn’t know how to respond when then-candidate Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proved impervious to shame long enough for the collective consciousness to normalize their behavior. In the aforementioned thought experiment, if Obama were sufficiently resistant to public and even judicial critique, and if he managed to get himself on the ballot and reelected, it’s likely the system eventually would have accepted it and moved on, too.
The third lesson is simple, and it remains the hardest for me to accept. We’re way more willing to condone conduct from our side than we are from the other side. This statement seems obvious, but sometimes it’s worth restating the obvious, if only to stop ourselves from overcomplicating it.
In 2016, I was regularly appalled by the Trump campaign’s dismissal of democratic traditions. But I probably would’ve been willing to bury my own hesitation about an unconstitutional third Obama term if it had been the alternative to Trump. We’ll tolerate conduct from our side that we’d rightly shun otherwise, especially if we can justify it as an undemocratic means to a more democratic end.
Remember Tim Tebow? Before he joined the Denver Broncos in 2010, I loathed Tebow in the way our culture gives us permission to despise public figures we’ve never met. I mocked him in the usual way that many football fans did. But then he was drafted by the Broncos, my team. Suddenly, I was thinking that maybe this guy wasn’t so bad.
By the time he led the Broncos to a strange and stunning playoff appearance the following season, I was all in. I didn’t always like the way he played or conducted himself off the field, but now he wasn’t just some quarterback — he was our quarterback, and we were winning. Loyalty to team and tribe is hardwired into us. It can be overcome, but its strength shouldn’t be underestimated.
At this point, it’s worth a reminder that this article is a thought experiment, not an exercise in falsely equating today’s Republican and Democratic parties. It’s not a means of legitimizing the moral compromises of Trump’s enablers in Congress. It’s not a justification for the hypocrisy of those who celebrate or ignore conduct from Trump for which they surely would’ve impeached his predecessor.
Democrats aren’t innocent of norm-breaking conduct, but today the GOP’s disrespect for precedent and its complicity in the unethical and sometimes illegal conduct that put Trump in the White House has no equivalent on the left. On matters from ethics to transparency to national security, the double-standard between the forty-fourth and forty-fifth presidents is gaping.
In many ways, we don’t have to contemplate a third Obama term to consider the consequences of undermining democratic norms because these consequences are thrust into the public eye every day. It should also go without saying that Barack Obama was never going to run again, no matter how intriguing anyone might have found Obama’s Third Term: Follow The Secret Path To President Obama’s Third Term. (Fear not — it’s still available on Amazon.)
Other than a few Twitter trolls and fringe commentators, no one — least of all the outgoing president himself — ever seriously suggested it. Even so, the “what if?” question is still worth considering for what it reveals about the vulnerabilities of our political system.
The degree to which this system can, or should, rely on unwritten norms has been a matter of debate throughout U.S. history. The introduction and adoption of the twenty-second amendment to the Constitution followed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third (and then a fourth) term in the White House.
There were indeed compelling reasons for America not to change presidents during World War II. It’s possible no leader but FDR could have rallied the United States out of the Great Depression and to victory in war. But while Roosevelt wasn’t the first sitting president to try, he was the first to succeed in defying one of America’s founding precedents. It was an anti-democratic act in support of a war for democracy. How do we reconcile these competing narratives?
Democracy is messy, complicated, and unpredictable. We like to think there’s always a clear right and wrong, and sometimes there is. For me, Trump’s nomination presented as stark a choice as any rational person could imagine. But it’s not always so clear.
I consider myself a reader of history and defender of norms and traditions. Yet had the choice in the summer of 2016 been either a constitutional first term of corruption and norm-breaking Trumpism, or an unconstitutional third term of the integrity and thoughtfulness of President Obama, I probably would’ve chosen the latter. I think a lot of people — not just progressives — would have, too.
The messaging of both campaigns aside, that wasn’t the choice voters faced. But considering how I might’ve responded to the prospect of a third Obama term makes our present situation just a tiny bit easier for me to understand. It reminds me just how fragile our norms are. It helps me grasp at a visceral, emotional level why people who profess a commitment to the traditions of American government might not just vote reluctantly for Donald Trump, but eventually find themselves enthusiastic defenders of his presidency.
From altering the Census to politicizing the Federal Reserve to refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas, the Trump administration’s assault on democratic norms seems set to continue. If we’re to resist these undemocratic efforts, every ounce of understanding is critical.
Norms are fragile and subjective. Political inertia is powerful. And hypocrisy is inseparable from politics. For better or worse, these facts are just that — facts — of our system today. But so far, only one political party has figured this out.