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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.
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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.
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.”