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Hillary On the Horizon as Obama Challenger?

What do Lyndon B. Johnson and Barack H. Obama have in common? And where might Hillary Rodham Clinton fit into this puzzle?

Lyndon Johnson won one of history’s biggest landslides in 1964, but four years later he dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The hand-writing was on the wall for LBJ, facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, domestic unrest at home, and discontent among fellow Democrats, who saw him as an albatross around their necks.

Will 2012 be President Obama’s déjà vu? Will it be 1968 all over again? After all, our current president is entangled in not one, but two unpopular wars, domestic unrest about the continuing high jobless rates, uncontrollable budget deficit and soaring debt ceiling, and plummeting approval ratings.

Already Democrats and a leading independent are grumbling. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) says he may not support Obama for reelection, and in overwhelmingly Democratic-majority districts, such as former Democratic Congressman Anthony Wiener’s New York district, the New York Times reports that Democrats are openly critical of Obama, and Democrats are running scared.

Politico notes that 68% of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, fearing constituent wrath about President Obama, refused to hold Town Meetings during the August recess.

With a veto-proof Congress at his command after his 1964 landslide, Johnson pushed through Congress some of America’s most far-reaching policy initiatives, including the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), Medicare (1965), and Medicaid (1965).

Likewise, Obama, after his convincing victory in 2008, which gave Democrats overwhelming control of Congress, pushed through major initiatives, including the Affordable Care Act (2010).

Yet, despite sweeping and historic legislation, both presidents faced voter discontent.

In 1966, Republicans made a big comeback, capturing 47 Democratic seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And, in the 2010 mid-term elections, Democrats lost control of the House and came close to losing control of the Senate.

If Obama’s declining fortunes continue, will he, like LBJ, step aside in the interest of the Democratic Party?

And if he does, who is better able than former first lady, former New York Senator and current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to assume the Democratic mantle?

Like Hubert H. Humphrey, LBJ’s Vice President, Hillary R. Clinton is a loyal Democrat, who ran a strong campaign for her party’s presidential nomination in 2008, as had Humphrey in 1960. As well, both served their respective presidents with distinction.

Moreover, no other prospective Democratic presidential nominee could or can match Humphrey’s and Clinton’s national organizations. In Hillary’s case, she has the added benefit of an organization built for her husband’s two campaigns in 1992 and ‘96 and her own in ‘08.

The Democratic Party is not likely to turn its back on America’s first African-American president, but a rising crescendo of criticism could cause Obama to voluntarily relinquish the presidency rather than suffer an embarrassing personal defeat.

Yes, history favors the reelection of President Obama. Only twice has an incumbent party in the White House after one term in office lost an election for a second term, Grover Cleveland (1888) and Jimmy Carter (1980). Cleveland’s call for high tariffs appealed primarily to the South, where he won convincingly, but he lost in every other region of the country. And Carter, like Gerald Ford (1976) and George H. W. Bush (1992), had jobless rates above 7.2 percent.

As with Cleveland, Obama’s winning coalition of ‘08 is coming apart, suffering low polling numbers throughout the nation and among all sectors of the population, except for African-Americans. Like Carter, he has a high jobless rate. No president in modern history has won reelection with a jobless rate above 7.2%. Obama’s stands at 9.1%.

Only time will tell if Hillary Rodham Clinton looms on the horizon. Perhaps, an unlikely scenario, but history just might repeat itself during this uncertain time in American politics.

Dr. Charles W. Dunn is a Distinguished Professor of Government at Regent University, author of "The Seven Laws of Presidential Leadership" (Pearson(Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007), and former chair of the United States J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board under Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton.