- Historic Sites
Why Have Our Presidents Almost Always Stumbled After Their First Four Years?
August/September 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 4
Andrew Jackson’s trademark stubbornness and his determination to break the Bank of the United States led to out-andout war with the Congress in his second term and helped provoke a panic and depression. Grover Cleveland, an equally prickly personality, stuck grimly to his laissez-faire “hard money” guns in his second term only to see his policies help set off one of the nation’s worst depressions.
Health has played a not insubstantial role in second-term miseries. After winning World War I, Woodrow Wilson seemed headed to a third term before suffering a series of strokes while trying to settle the peace. These attacks intensified Wilson’s famous stubbornness, eventually wrecking both his health and his legacy.
Nor should psychological health be overlooked. Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election in 1972 seems to have brought him little joy, just a renewed desire to settle scores. Released from the harness at last, the perpetual campaigner overreached badly in trying to cover up Watergate and the other excesses of his first term and ended up on his way back to San Clemente less than two years later.
franklin d. roosevelt library, hyde park, n.y.2006_4_20
Overreaching is, of course, another constant pitfall of the second term, particularly when the mandate raises its deceptive head. The example most often cited is that of Franklin Roosevelt, who achieved an even more one-sided victory than Nixon in 1936 and proceeded to try to “pack” the Supreme Court with sympathetic judges and to challenge conservative, mostly Southern representatives and senators in the 1938 primaries. His failures in both these instances would hobble FDR for the rest of the term—although, of course, he got around this problem through the unique solution of going on to a third term, and a fourth.
Then there’s Lyndon Johnson, who lurched into the original quagmire, Vietnam, after scoring another resounding electoral victory in 1964. Here, once again, the historical record is more complex. Vietnam was surely a disaster, both for the country and for LBJ. But Johnson still managed to create Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs that reduced poverty and increased opportunity in the United States. Above all, some of his most important civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights and Fair Housing Acts passed in his second term.
FDR’s second term saw similar successes. In the wake of his court-packing proposal, the Supreme Court almost miraculously reversed itself, upholding crucial elements of his Second New Deal legislation. Historians still debate the cause and effect, but the end result was indisputable.
The nature of power is such that it vanishes if not used, and certain political fights are unavoidable, even if they seem ungainly at the time. George Washington, our original two-termer, surely understood this, with a final four years in which he had to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion and choose between his two brilliant young cabinet stars, Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The conflict was unavoidable, but worth-while. By contrast, Calvin Coolidge had a second term that was remarkably tranquil but left unresolved the structural problems of the American economy that would bedevil his successor, Herbert Hoover.
All right, so who did have a good second term? Well, Teddy Roosevelt endured a short-lived stock market panic but was pretty much his same irrepressible self, pushing through the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts, setting aside new national parks and wildlife refuges, and winning the Nobel Prize for negotiating an end to the RussoJapanese War. And then there was James Monroe, who had a second term so prosperous and uneventful that the opposition party disbanded and the whole period became known as the Era of Good Feelings. For his efforts he died deeply in debt, hiding from his creditors, and has now been all but forgotten by his countrymen.
Is this a fate that George W. Bush will envy? Who knows? Should the war in Iraq turn around, it could be remembered as a difficult but necessary struggle, and Bush as a resolute leader who played a vital role in stanching Islamic terrorism. As a seasoned presidential observer once opined, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”