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Why Have Our Presidents Almost Always Stumbled After Their First Four Years?
August/September 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 4
franklin d. roosevelt library, hyde park, n.y.2006_4_20b
Pity poor George W. Bush, stuck in the morass of those second-term blues! As of this writing, Mr. Bush’s poll numbers—those now ubiquitous barometers of presidential popularity—are barely creeping up after hitting record lows earlier this year. The seemingly stalled war in Iraq, the bungled relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina, and the grudges accumulated from two bitter national campaigns have left less than a third of the American electorate convinced that he is still doing a good job.
Yet President Bush can draw some consolation from the knowledge that the popularity of many Presidents has flagged the second time around and that history has not always borne out the judgment of the time. In fact, so many administrations have bogged down in their second terms that we are left with a broader question: Is there something in our political institutions that inevitably leads our most successful Presidents to court disaster, or are our expectations the real culprit? In other words, is it us or is it them?
Of the 42 individuals who have been President of the United States, 15 were elected to two or more consecutive terms of office. Another 4—Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson—succeeded to office on the death of a President but were then elected to a full term in their own right. One, Grover Cleveland, served two nonconsecutive terms. The fact that the secondterm experiences of these 20 men were overwhelmingly unhappy is undeniable. The reasons, though, vary greatly.
In some cases it was simply bad luck. Both Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley were assassinated soon after beginning their second terms and at the height of their popularity. Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a mild stroke in his second term; the country suffered a sharp, if brief, economic downturn. But the overall robustness of the 1950s economy, Ike’s inner strength and confidence, and his past military service ensured that he was still widely liked when he left office.
Thomas Jefferson’s second term was plagued by the Napoleonic Wars, as both Britain and France badgered American shipping. Jefferson’s response was a rather naive one, the Embargo Act of 1807, which permitted no American ships to trade in foreign ports and no foreign ships to come here. Jefferson believed that the Embargo Act would bring the much larger economies of France and Britain to heel. Instead, it succeeded only in hamstringing the American economy during the 14 months it was in effect, before Jefferson sheepishly replaced it with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809.
Yet as is the case with several such second-term follies, Jefferson’s blunder doesn’t look quite as bad in retrospect. The Embargo Act at least succeeded in giving an unexpected opening to our own emerging manufacturers at a critical moment in their development.
franklin d. roosevelt library, hyde park, n.y.2006_4_20a
Similarly, one of the two second-term Presidents whose popularity ratings plunged as low as Bush’s was Harry Truman. Reviled for allowing the Korean War to devolve into a stalemate, he has become one our most revered Presidents.
Sometimes a certain malaise seems to engulf the Oval Office once the last big race of a politician’s career has been run. Two widely popular recent administrations, those of Presidents Reagan and Clinton, seemed to lose focus for a time in their second terms and drifted into scandal. Both then managed to right themselves, thanks in good part to prevailing conditions of peace and prosperity.
Both of these Presidencies could have benefited from repeal of the Twenty-third Amendment, which restricted every President to two terms upon its passage in 1947. This prohibition is clearly the greatest institutional impediment to an effective second term, mitigating as it does the whole power of incumbency. Essentially, the moment he is re-elected, the President is a lame duck. The two-term limit blunts a politician’s most potent tool, the threat that he could be around for a long time to come, while simultaneously depriving the rest of us of our democratic right to vote for whom we please.
Yet the reality is that more often, familiarity breeds contempt. Frequently a President’s most characteristic traits become wearisome. The scandals of the Grant Administration began in the first year of its first term and continued into the last year of its second term, as Grant, a great warrior, continued to flounder in peace, hiring one venal subordinate after another who was not worthy of his trust. By contrast, James Madison, a great man in peace, fumbled incompetently on through the remainder of the War of 1812, which had begun so disastrously in the last year of his first term.