January 20, 2009

A Quibble

Barack Obama is not the forty-fourth President of the United States.

No, I'm not talking about the de minimis error in the wording of the oath he swore this morning (which was John Roberts' fault, and Roberts can be forgiven that because he's never done this before, either). What he said has the same meaning as the oath, and he can say the words in the right order later if that will appease the Kool-Aid drinkers who think government is a game of magical rituals, talismans and recital of spells.

No, I'm going to suggest not that Barack Obama is not the President at all, but rather that he is the forty-third President of the United States.

If you count him as #44, then you're counting Grover Cleveland twice. Wikipedia's list of the Presidents is as good as any out there. Cleveland is counted as President #22 and President #24, because his terms were not consecutive. But he was still the same guy. So if you count the number of people who have served as President of the United States since adoption of the Constitution in 1789, Obama is only the forty-third holder of the office.

Cleveland's comeback in 1892 is remarkable. It could never happen again today. Think about it. In 1884, Cleveland eked out a very narrow victory over James Blaine, a Republican Senator from Maine. Cleveland's margin of victory was 219 electoral votes to Blaine's 182; the popular vote was decided by less than .3%, or less than 30,000 votes nationwide (something like 10 million votes were cast total). A squeaker to be sure, probably a corrupted election, and one whose main issues were character assassinations on the various candidates.

Then, in 1888, Cleveland runs for re-election. He loses to Benjamin Harrison, a one-term former Senator whose main qualification was that his grandfather had been President for a month. (Learn more about that here!) Harrison managed to flip two states from the 1894 1884 election -- New York and Indiana. Harrison's campaign was so dicey that he actually lost the popular vote -- Cleveland got 48.6% of the vote and Harrison only 47.8%; the difference was about 90,000 votes out of just over 11 million cast.

Today, would such a candidate -- a President who had managed to conduct so inept a campaign as to bungle a popular victory, got himself voted out of office, and who had previously got in by a whisker after a nasty campaign -- ever stand a chance of getting a third nomination by his party? I say, "no way." The Democrats wouldn't want Jimmy Carter. Republicans wouldn't want George H.W. Bush the Elder. If Obama loses his bid for re-election in 2012, would anyone seriously think the Democrats would nominate him again in 2016? No way.

But Cleveland did exactly that. He managed to convince his party to give him a third bite at the apple. And he pulled it off. Thanks to the admission of some new states, a re-drawing of the electoral college map, new rules allowing states to appoint electors of different parties, the intervention of a significant third party, and most of all, the unpopularity of a tariff system promoted by the Harrison Administration, Cleveland steamrollered Harrison in 1892. His margin of victory the third time around was a full 3.0%, ten times the margin he's first been elected by twelve years previously.

So there's no doubt that Cleveland was the twenty-second President and Harrison the twenty-third. The question is what to do about Cleveland defeating Harrison in 1892. For whatever reason, a convention has arisen such that the second Cleveland Administration, which held office from 1893 to the early weeks of 1897, is counted as the twenty-fourth Presidency. But I think, hey, it's the same guy. How could he be the twenty-second President and the twenty-fourth President at the same time? Wouldn't be at least as accurate to say that when he swore the oath in 1893, Cleveland re-assumed the office and became the twenty-second President again?

As it turned out, Cleveland eventually lost the support of most of his party by supporting the gold standard; he offered a candidacy for re-election with a splinter group of "National Democrats" joining the Republicans in supporting the gold standard, but lost the nomination to Senator John Palmer of Illinois. (Palmer and the "Gold Democrats" had no appreciable impact on the election of 1896, which is an election worthy of a lot of independent study on its own; the point here is that Cleveland desired a third term as President, and there were no rules against him seeking it.)

So, ever since 1893, we've been counting our Presidents wrong, and we continue to do so today. Barack Hussein Obama is actually the forty-third President of the United States. But our convention, which is thoroughly arbitrary, is to count Cleveland twice, which means Obama is given number 44. Either way, congratulations, Mr. President.


zzi said...

Thank you. I actually thought of old Grover. My new go to man.

But I still think your wrong about Truman.

Thomas said...

Did you notice that Obama mentioned non-believers in his inauguration speech? I was disappointed that he didn't mention the most peaceful religion, Buddhism.

trumwill said...

Hey, I noted the same thing!

Actually, I think that there is some lattitude in how you count it. I don't think that it's necessarily wrong to say that Obama is the 44th president if you think that you have to be 23rd to come after the 22nd. It could go either way. It is wrong, however, to say that Obama is the 44th person to become president. Or to say that he is the 44th man to take the oath, which Obama said near the top of his speech.

It's difficult to imagine any future Clevelands, though not impossible. One reason for this I think is term limits. I think that it would be difficult for anyone to secure the nomination if they could only serve one term. The party people would want someone with the power of incumbency four years hence. Get rid of or alter the 22nd amendment and I could see it happening if there were a president that made something widely percieved as a mistake, lost, but was later on vindicated. I'm not sure what the scenario should be.