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Waiting in the Wings: A Historical Survey of Living Ex-Presidents

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Barack Obama is the first Democrat since James Buchanan with two living Democratic ex-presidents to advise him; Obama one of only five presidents in history to have 4+ ex-presidents still alive at crucial two-year mark

President Barack Obama's meeting with former President Bill Clinton on Friday - and the somewhat curious joint press conference that followed - may or may not have bolstered Democratic support for his compromise tax bill proposal.

Most analysts, however, believe it to have been a net plus for Obama to strategically bring out the former two-term Democratic president.

The tapping of an ex-president like Clinton for advice and public support, however, is not a luxury many former presidents in the White House have had - particularly Democrats.

A Smart Politics analysis finds that Barack Obama is just one of five presidents in U.S. history at the midpoint of his first term to have a pool of four or more living ex-presidents as potential resources for advice or public relations maneuvering.

Most presidents have not enjoyed such a bounty of ex-presidents at their disposal with which to consult privately, or use publicly - particularly those from their own party.

In fact, the average U.S. president throughout history has had just two ex-presidents living at the time of his inauguration.

Each president (save George Washington) has had at least one former president alive when they were sworn in for their first term, with three beginning their presidency with five living ex-presidents:

· Abraham Lincoln: Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan
· Bill Clinton: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush
· George W. Bush: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton

Another five presidents, including Obama, began their first term with four former presidents still alive:

· John Quincy Adams: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe
· James Polk: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler
· James Buchanan: Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce
· George H.W. Bush: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan
· Barack Obama: Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush

But the sage advice of those who have previously run the White House is perhaps most needed at the mid-point of a president's first term.

The two-year mark into a first term has often been a point of struggle in the modern presidency, with Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton in particular all flailing to some degree at that time. (Each saw their party lose at least 15 House seats in the midterms).

To be sure, the Obama administration is trying to climb out of a political abyss, with a job approval rating now in the low 40s and having just endured a brutal mid-term election that saw 63 seats in the House, six U.S. Senate seats, six governorships, and several hundred state legislative seats flip to the GOP.

Only five presidents have had a pool of four or more ex-presidents still alive at this key juncture - including each of the last four: Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, along with James Buchanan (pictured).

Of course, the simple fact that ex-presidents are alive does not mean they are easily recruited to take the kind of public stance Clinton did on Friday to back the beleaguered Obama, as criticism of his tax plan poured in from the left and right ideological factions of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively.

It is therefore critical to have (popular) ex-presidents from one's own political party waiting in the wings to dust off and back the president's agenda to drum up public and legislative support.

Barack Obama is uniquely situated in that he is the first Democratic president since James Buchanan over 150 years ago to have two Democratic ex-presidents still alive when he took office.

In fact, the vast majority of Democratic presidents since the Civil War have not even had a single former Democratic president still living at the time they were inaugurated.

Grover Cleveland (as the 22nd and 24th president), Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter were the only Democrat presidents alive when they were sworn into office.

John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson both had Truman, while Bill Clinton had Carter.

When Buchanan faced the mid-way part of his administration at the end of 1858 (during a period of even greater national disunity), former Democratic presidents Martin Van Buren and Franklin Pierce (under whose administration Buchanan served as Minister to the United Kingdom) were still living.

For better or worse for Obama, both living Democratic ex-presidents - Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter - have not been camera shy or afraid of a good sound byte since exiting the White House.

For Obama, the choice to put Clinton in front of the cameras over Carter was obvious.

First, Obama knew the journalistic frame in reporting on their meeting and the subsequent press conference would reference Clinton's own post-midterm transformation which saw him - through compromise and triangulation - resurrect his presidency and win a second term.

Secondly, a recently released Gallup Poll found President Clinton's historical stock rising rapidly among modern presidents, ranking him the third highest among all presidents since John Kennedy.

Clinton's eight-point gain in retrospective job approval rating since 2006 - from 61 to 69 percent - was tied for the highest percentage point increase during that four-year span.

Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, fell from tied for third to sixth in the Gallup poll - with his nine-point drop from 61 to 52 percent the largest of the nine presidents studied.

One last historical note: four presidents (besides Washington), at some point in their administration, have not even had the option to call on an ex-president for advice from either party, as all former presidents were deceased: John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon.

Number of Ex-Presidents Still Living at Time of First-Term Inauguration, by President

#
President
Living ex-presidents
1
Washington
(None)
2
J. Adams
Washington*
3
Jefferson
J. Adams
4
Madison
J. Adams, Jefferson
5
Monroe
J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison
6
J.Q. Adams
J. Adams*, Jefferson*, Madison, Monroe
7
Jackson
Madison, Monroe, J.Q. Adams
8
Van Buren
J.Q. Adams, Jackson
9
W.H. Harrison
J.Q. Adams, Jackson, Van Buren
10
Tyler
J.Q. Adams, Jackson, Van Buren
11
Polk
J.Q. Adams*, Jackson*, Van Buren, Tyler
12
Taylor
Van Buren, Tyler, Polk*
13
Fillmore
Van Buren, Tyler
14
Pierce
Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore
15
Buchanan
Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce
16
Lincoln
Van Buren*, Tyler*, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan
17
A. Johnson
Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan*
18
Grant
Fillmore, Pierce*, A. Johnson
19
Hayes
Grant
20
Garfield
Grant, Hayes
21
Arthur
Grant, Hayes
22
Cleveland
Grant*, Hayes, Arthur*
23
B. Harrison
Hayes, Cleveland
24
Cleveland
Hayes*, B. Harrison
25
McKinley
Cleveland, B. Harrison*
26
T. Roosevelt
Cleveland*
27
Taft
T. Roosevelt
28
Wilson
T. Roosevelt*, Taft
29
Harding
Taft, Wilson
30
Coolidge
Taft, Wilson*
31
Hoover
Taft*, Coolidge*
32
F. Roosevelt
Hoover
33
Truman
Hoover
34
Eisenhower
Hoover, Truman
35
Kennedy
Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower
36
L. Johnson
Hoover*, Truman, Eisenhower
37
Nixon
Truman*, Eisenhower*, L. Johnson*
38
Ford
Nixon
39
Carter
Nixon, Ford
40
Reagan
Nixon, Ford, Carter
41
Bush
Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan
42
Clinton
Nixon*, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41
43
Bush
Ford*, Carter, Reagan*, Bush 41, Clinton
44
Obama
Carter, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43
* Denotes ex-presidents that died during that president's administration. Table compiled by Smart Politics.

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