(The editor of AmericanHeritage.com asked for our thoughts on why Presidents’ second terms so often go badly, and whether it has anything to do with the 22nd Amendment, which limits them to two terms.)
Several factors are involved. The first is simple regression toward the mean. To get reelected, you have to have good luck in your first term. During the second term, chances are your luck will be merely average, so it will look like you did a worse job. (This also explains why the Red Sox didn’t win the World Series this year.) A related factor, similar in concept but less random, is the business cycle. If the economy goes well in your first term, it will probably get worse sometime during the second, and people will blame it on you.
Another factor is postponement. Scandals tend to come up in the second term because they can usually be put off until after the election. The Watergate burglary happened in Nixon’s first term, but no serious investigation could be started until his second one. Paula Jones had been after Bill Clinton for years, but his lawyers managed to keep her at bay until he was reelected. The same goes for tough decisions, like getting involved in a war. Smart Presidents wait until their second term. Wilson and LBJ understood this, but Madison didn’t, and he nearly got kicked out. Similarly, short-term economic fixes like large deficits, overzealous budget cutting, or messing around with the currency or interest rates (to the extent that the President can influence these things) can be used to shift trouble into the second term.
Simple fatigue may also be a factor, as well as post-election depression. Plus lots of your staff and cabinet will resign, so you have to bring in the benchwarmers. In addition, a President often exhausts his bag of tricks and reforms and initiatives in his first term and spends the second one trying to look busy. Then there’s the seven-year itch; it’s hard to stay in love with any President for two whole terms.
None of these things are directly related to the 22nd Amendment, which limits Presidents to two terms; they would apply equally well without it. And in fact, Presidents have had shaky second terms going all the way back to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. As far as I can tell, the amendment itself comes into play mainly because people are less inclined to do your bidding (or cover up for you) when they know you’ll be out of office in a couple of years. Instead, they concentrate on securing their own future, which may require them to make a show of independence—especially if the President has already started looking weak.