When asked last month about the 2016 presidential election, President Barack Obama said that Americans are ready for that “new car smell” in presidential politics, and that after six years in office his presidency has some “dings.” The President’s comments seem to be in line with what the American public has said in recent months, with low approval ratings for most politicians in Washington (particularly Obama as well as Congress as a whole), and the number of incumbents who lost their jobs last month during the midterm elections. Yet, as the 2016 presidential contest gears up, it seems several of the potential frontrunners have ignored that message as talk has been dominated by three famous political names: Clinton, Romney, and Bush.
The news media has all but given the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton if she decides to run. Speculation seems to focus more on when she will announce her candidacy rather than if she will run again. As a result, the entire political world, and most importantly other potential Democratic candidates, eagerly await Clinton’s decision (expected sometime in early 2015). Until she announces, the potential of her candidacy weighs especially heavy among Democratic donors as other potential candidates cannot secure their support if Clinton is waiting in the wings. After losing the Democratic nomination to Obama in 2008, most experts and Clinton herself said that her days as a presidential candidate were over. However, constant media speculation about Clinton’s candidacy, the attention received by the Ready for Hillary political action committee, and Clinton’s 2014 book tour have kept the story very much alive, as has Clinton’s insistence that she is still thinking it over and not ready to make a decision.
That unwillingness to rule out the possibility of another presidential run has helped to generate media speculation in recent months about Mitt Romney’s future as well. Several recent polls show Romney running ahead of all other Republican contenders for 2016. While he has not said he would run again, he has also not confirmed that he won’t. This would be the third presidential campaign in a row for the former Massachusetts governor, having lost in the Republican primaries to John McCain in 2008 (though he did win 11 primary contests), and having won the Republican nomination but losing in the general election to Barack Obama (Obama won 332 Electoral College votes to Romney’s 206). His success in helping to campaign for Republican congressional candidates during the recent midterm elections, as well as support from Republican donors who like his deregulatory approach to economic issues, continues to fan the flames of a third presidential run.
In recent days, the famous political name getting the most media attention is Jeb Bush. With his Facebook announcement Tuesday that he will “actively explore” a run for the White House, it is looking more and more likely that the former governor of Florida will enter the 2016 presidential contest. In addition, Bush has released 250,000 e-mails from his time as governor, is writing a book, and recent news reports suggest that his potential campaign manager, Mike Murphy, is telling both Republican donors and campaign staffers to hold off with any early commitments to other potential candidates.
Some are already questioning whether Bush is a viable candidate, being the son of former President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) and the younger brother of former President George W. Bush (2001-2009). According to Bush family lore, it was Jeb, and not first-born George W., who was meant to become president. Both ran for governor in their respective states in 1994, just two years after their father had lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton in 1992. But while George W. won in Texas, Jeb lost in Florida. Jeb would be elected governor of Florida four years later in 1998. As the 2000 presidential campaign got underway, Jeb was less than two years into his new job and not seen as ready to run for president while George W., well into his second term after a landslide reelection victory in 1998, was the one who benefitted from the name recognition and family ties in seeking the White House.
Whether the ties to his father and brother will help or hurt Jeb Bush remains to be seen. Many Republicans have distanced themselves from George W. Bush, who left office with a low approval rating and did not even speak at the 2012 Republican National Convention. But George H. W. Bush is seen as a popular former president and elder statesman, and in hindsight, receives high marks for his foreign policy expertise, particularly his ability to put together such a broad coalition of allies during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The affection Americans hold for the elder Bush also comes from his charitable activities since leaving the White House, not to mention the fact that he recently celebrated his 90th birthday with a tandem skydive in Kennebunkport, Maine.
More so than Clinton or Romney, and despite his famous lineage, Bush seems to do better with that “new car smell” that Obama talked about. Americans tend to like former governors as presidential candidates (four of the last six presidents were former governors, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush), as they are seen as Washington outsiders with executive experience. Bush has been out of office since January 2007, is not associated with current Washington politics, and has not been in the news as much in recent years. His biggest obstacles as a candidate may come from within the Republican Party, as he is widely seen as a formidable general election candidate if he can secure the Republican nomination. He said recently that Republican candidates may need to consider “losing the primary to win the general election,” which is the acknowledgment that a candidate needs the support of the conservative base of the Republican Party to win the nomination, but must move back to the center to attract moderate, independent, and potential cross-over voters during the general election. While Bush is not a moderate Republican, he is also not as far right as other members of his party and may not appeal to Christian conservative voters in an early state like Iowa (where soon-to-be former Texas Governor Rick Perry might do well) or among Tea Party activists, who would be more likely to support Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky or Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Bush has also stated positions on policies such as immigration reform and Common Core (national K-12 education standards) that many conservatives oppose, and the recent release of the Senate’s report on the CIA’s use of torture has, at least temporarily, put his brother’s administration back in the spotlight. However, Bush is off to a good start in the so-called invisible primary due to his name recognition, potential support among donors, the fact that he is not currently in office, and media coverage that suggests the viability of his candidacy. And while a third Bush presidency would not be a novel idea for American voters, Jeb Bush is still a fresher face for voters than either Romney or Clinton.