At the risk of over-simplifying the complex phenomena of American presidents and their re-election successes and failures, modern American presidential elections have fallen squarely within the confines of two central issues: the economy and aspects of a particular presidents foreign policy.
This framework is not absolutist, as a couple presidents (Nixon and Clinton) had tremendous personal scandals, while other presidents were cursed with both economic problems and foreign policy issues (Carter and George W. Bush.) Overall though, presidents generally win or lose election of the basis of economic or foreign policy strength or weakness, lets run some examples:
Jimmy Carter- The Democrat from Georgia rose to the presidency as the voters grew distrustful and resentful of Republican leadership following the Watergate scandal. Carter’s own reelection bid was derailed due to a combination body blow of the Iran Hostage Crisis and a putrid 1970’s oil embargoed economy. Carter was one of the two presidents who was tagged with dual gremlins of economic and foreign policy weakness.
Ronald Reagan- Inherited an economic downturn from Carter, but was elected for his tough talk and the feeling that he would do something about the issues of the moment whether it was the Iran Hostage Crisis or the Cold War. He re-stood in front of the electorate in 1984 with strong foreign policy credentials. The question for Reagan was the economy and by 1984, it had shown enough growth that he was able to brush aside the Democratic challenge from Walter Mondale.
George H.W. Bush- Sitting VP under Reagan and continued many Regan era policies. The big foreign policy success of Bush I was a quick and decisive victory over Saddam Hussein in Iraq and a liberation of Kuwait, which at one point netted the elder Bush a ninety percent approval rating. In the face of a sluggish economy, his approval rating melted despite his foreign policy successes and he was defeated by a governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton- Bill Clinton will be most remembered for his personal conduct with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment. Personal failings aside, the tech boom of the 1990’s created an economic boom, which probably made him strong enough to withstand the 1996 election challenge from the legendary Bob Dole. Good thing it wasn’t a foreign policy contest given the American government wide failure in Rwanda. But you’ll often find the American voter is perhaps wisely self interested in his own economic well being ahead of an African genocide.
George W. Bush- Not personally a Bush fan, but many people unfairly blame him for some things. He inherited a slowing economy from the Clinton years, so the “George Bush wrecked the economy isn’t an absolute truism.” Presidency obviously deeply impacted by 9-11 and War on Terror led to two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Economy had something of a jobless recovery by 2004 reelection campaign. Advisors widely turned it into a values contest, which George W. Bush won over John Kerry as the two sparred over issues like gay marriage and each others service record, that probably under whelmed most of the still jobless electorate, weary of war casualties.
Barack Obama-His reelection is of course an open question. May be categorized alongside Bush and Carter as a economic/foreign policy double dipper. But we shouldn’t count Obama as reelected or defeated yet. There’s still a year before the elections and even though its’ a Rick Perry love-fest for some Republicans, political fortunes change in the blink of an eye. If the economy picks up substantially, Obama wins it, if it doesn’t well then its’ an open question.