I’ve seen some elections that are referendums on the President, but those have almost always been Congressional campaigns, like 2010 and 2006 or 1994. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a presidential election that was a pure referendum, and every presidential election I’ve covered involved a choice. There are good reasons for this.
The presidency is our most intimate office. The President lives in our homes for four years. The media spend considerable amounts of time, sometimes too much, telling us who these people are. And then in October we get to see two, occasionally three, men–only men, sadly, so far–on the stage and we decide which one we want to invite into our homes for the next four years. Barring a national disaster, issues are secondary–although an impression of how you might handle those issues is important. In 2008, for example, the causes of the financial collapse were abstruse, but Obama gave the impression that he understood what was happening and would handle it calmly. John McCain did not.