Second Term Problems
Today, well into that 21st century, Barack Obama is about to become the 21st president of the United States to serve a second term. He'll deliver his inaugural against a backdrop of commentary, much of it about the "curse". Whether one believes in the curse or not, second-term presidents inevitably confront problems both unexpected and familiar. Obama will, too. Does the past hold any clues about how to overcome them?
Those 21 second-termers include three presidents who were elected to second terms but didn't complete them, either because of assassination (Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley) or resignation (Richard Nixon). It also includes four who assumed the office after the death of a sitting president and then were elected to a second term (Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson).
Second-termers aren't sprinkled evenly throughout American history. Five of the first seven US presidents won second terms: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson. In the 100 years between Jackson and F.D.R., the US only had seven. But in the past 32 years, it's had four out of the last five: Ronald Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama â€" only George H.W. Bush missed out.
When it comes to the last half century, the second-term curse might seem real. For several of the seven modern second-term presidents, a single image of failure overshadowed many of their achievements: Clinton, before impeachment proceedings, looks straight into the TV cameras to utter the most famous line of his presidency: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Nixon, hands held high, fingers spread in a V-for-victory sign, boards a helicopter on the White House lawn to leave the White House, the first and only president to have resigned in office. Johnson, eligible to run for president again but so unpopular he is about to lose the Wisconsin primary to little-known Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, announces on TV, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
Even generally successful presidents have faced humiliating episodes: for Reagan, the Iran-contra scandal; for Dwight Eisenhower, the U-2 spy plane episode. But there's a difference between difficulty and debacle. How can you distinguish between the problems presidents encounter in every term and ones that discredit the entire four years? What's the standard for gauging any president's success? Even those who have tried to develop measures are cautious about generalizing. Critics often deride State of the Union messages â€" "empty rhetoric," some said after last year's. In fact, modern presidents include specific calls for congressional action â€" the median is about 31, ranging from Carter's 1979 low of nine to Clinton's 2000 high of 87.
On the surface, the numbers might seem to substantiate the difficulties of a second term. 43 percent of the requests are passed in some form â€" 51 percent in a first term and only 38.6 percent in the second. But the issue is more complicated than that, especially when considering early presidents. The nation's early leaders weren't much concerned with legislative requests. Not until Woodrow Wilson did the notion emerge of presidents called "legislators in chief". When measuring success, I'm not concerned about whether Jefferson got Congress to do what he wanted, [To him] it would have been anathema.
Focusing too closely on what chief executives get through Congress can lead to misconceptions about modern presidents, too. Legislation is only one of their tools. Others include federal agencies, executive orders, appointments, and judicial nominations. You hear people saying [Clinton] squandered his second term. He did a lot. Not through legislation. But that's a narrow view of what presidents do. Clinton's executive orders protecting more wilderness areas from development "than any president since Teddy Roosevelt."
It's important to disentangle ideology from the questions of success and failure. Unlike basketball, in which success means getting the most points, success to a Democrat â€" like passing health reform â€" can mean abysmal failure to a Republican, and vice versa. The two sides disagree not just on worth but facts. Reagan's greatest second-term achievement â€" his partnership with Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev to peacefully end the cold war.
Sharply disagreeing about the importance of star wars is a former speechwriter and aide to both Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Star wars figured into this by making a first-strike capacity obsolete. Other Reagan second-term achievements: "tax reform, holding the line on spending, [supporting] a large number of countries to move from despotism to democracy, and fidelity to judicial restraint."
A 12 percent difference between first- and second-term legislative success doesn't seem enough to warrant a term like "curse" â€" or determine whether second-term presidents fail or just falter. The problems that recurrently surface for presidents â€" whether in their first term or second â€" seem to be the same four: Unpopular wars. Truman in Korea, Johnson and Nixon in Vietnam, and Bush in Iraq â€" their second terms all included war or military action Americans disliked. Bad economies. The 1987 stock market crash hurt Reagan, and the broader economic collapse in 2008 marred Bush's legacy. But the 1873 and 1893 recessions in Grant's and Cleveland's respective second terms were enormous setbacks, too. Personal scandal or corruption. The Monica Lewinsky affair led to Clinton's impeachment, and Nixon's ordering of the Watergate coverup resulted in his impeachment and resignation.
Grant was hobbled by the appointment of a Treasury secretary who turned out to be a crook. Reagan eventually took the blame for Iran-contra, though it's unclear how sharply he had focused on the issue. Jefferson's problems with one member of his administration may have been in a class of their own: His first-term vice president, Aaron Burr, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later, after being jettisoned from the administration, was tried for treason for supposedly fomenting revolution on the Western frontier. The controversies surrounding Burr, and Jefferson's handling of them, no doubt affected his popularity.
Historians today praise a Monroe administration treaty with Britain that would have called slavery "piracy" as well as the president's efforts to keep native Americans on lands they inhabited. A hostile Congress rejected both. The Senate killed one of Wilson's signature initiatives â€" American membership in the League of Nations. A Republican House blocked many of Clinton's legislative efforts.
Then there was F.D.R. He had a disastrous first half to his second term. The root of F.D.R.'s problems had come in his first four years. The court had blocked so many of his New Deal programs that after reelection he concocted a plan to "pack" the court by increasing the number of justices. The Senate rejected his efforts. Facing a deep recession in 1938, F.D.R. used the midterm elections to try purging the Senate of his enemies; the effort failed. "After that, the Senate was dead set against him," says Mr. Shesol. Fortunately for F.D.R., by 1939 Americans were preoccupied with war in Europe. Domestic worries receded.
The image of F.D.R. then versus now highlights another point about legacies: how Americans see presidents through a glass darkly. Coolidge finished his second term immensely popular, but historians fault him for not doing more to prevent the Depression. Jefferson and Truman left office vastly unpopular. Historians and the public are more reverential today. Time will influence Obama's reputation, too. As he prepares to place his hand on the Bible and take the oath of office for the second time, what problems might he face? Most commentators discount the possibility of a personal moral scandal from a president who mentions his wife and daughters in speech after speech. And they are dubious about his taste for entering into the kind of trillion-dollar-plus war of choice that Iraq turned out to be.
The economy? In one sense good news lies ahead. Even during the campaign, many financial analysts predicted that, while the economy might weaken in 2013, the US should experience at least modest job growth over the next four years no matter who won the election. Congress and the White House have also agreed to part of a "fiscal cliff" deal â€" an increase in income taxes for the very rich.
Still, Democrats and Republicans differ sharply over how to cut government spending and extend the debt ceiling. Whatever agreements emerge over those issues, there's no question that Obama will move through his second term without the money to fund everything â€" like infrastructure â€" on his domestic agenda. And as happens with every president, some of the big events of the second term will take everyone by surprise: Think 9/11, hurricane Katrina, and the Arab Spring. Yet history offers lessons about how to surmount various problems in a second term.
Of course, Democrats argue that the president has been too quick to compromise. Does ideology play a role here, too? Still, the lesson is clear. Even those who admire Obama think he could reach out more. Presidents often look abroad to burnish their legacy in second terms. Obama, limited at home by fiscal-cliff agreements, might follow that pattern. There's no shortage of tasks: blocking Iran's nuclear program without going to war, moving Arab countries toward democracies, withdrawin from a stable Afghanistan, forging an arms agreement with Russia, renewing a focus on Asia that maintains relations with China.
Could Clinton's second term be a model? Obama's effort to nudge Arab countries toward democracy. Why can't he do as well as the Clinton administration did when it stabilized countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union? The money worries that dominate the fiscal-cliff debate are broader than domestic issues. Obama's second term will hopefully see him defer less to the Europeans. Where we lead matters. Whether or not Clinton upended the "existing order," no curse held him back. In the 21 second terms beginning with George Washington's, obstacles recur. But a curse? Even the least successful presidents do a lot to build their bridges to the future.
More to the point is something Reagan said when he gave the farewell speech at the end of his second term. Reagan's writers gave him a story to help make a point â€" of a moment early in his tenure when sailors on an American ship in the South China Sea spotted a boat low in the water, crammed with Vietnamese refugees. A sailor watched as the boat drew closer. Finally, one of the refugees stood up and called, "Hello, Freedom Man." Reagan doesn't drive home his obvious belief: that his administration helped bring freedom to people around the world. His claim is more modest â€" one that, unlike claims of a curse, is true of every president, and will be true of Obama. "We weren't just marking time," Reagan said. "We made a difference."
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