I think John Steele Gordon is onto something in his remarks about our genetic need to tell stories. Though second-term blues have been common throughout our history, the reasons for them, as both he and Fredric Schwarz point out, are wildly disparate. A glance at three recent presidents reveals just how varied the problems can be and how diametrically opposed the underlying causes often are.
Frederic Schwarz speaks of post-election fatigue and depression. In the case of Clinton, I think we can add boredom to the list, plus a flair for shooting himself in the foot to relieve the boredom. After achieving a first term and reelection, what was this superachiever to do but raise the stakes for what he could do, or get away with?
One can argue that FDR’s second term presents a different set of conditions, because he was the cause, not the victim or beneficiary, of the 22nd amendment. But a convincing case can and has been made that early in his second term FDR had no intention of running for a third, and that only the threat of war persuaded him to stand again in 1940. In other words, in his own mind he might have been in his final term. Perhaps that was why, buoyed by his 1936 landslide, he set out to make permanent in his second term the achievements of his first. He not only attempted to pack the court, he also sought to streamline the administration, which he had helped make so unwieldy, and purge his own party of conservatives in the 1938 election.
The current President Bush’s case has certain similarities to those of both these predecessors. Though not reelected by anything close to a landslide, he chose to perceive his return to office as a mandate and set out to solidify the achievements or failures (depending on your point of view) of his first term, not the least of which would be the undoing of FDR’s Social Security plan. But whether suffering from post-election fatigue (which seems unlikely in view of the amount of time he spent vacationing at his ranch before Katrina), depression, boredom, or, more likely, hubris, Katrina and the downward spiraling war in Iraq seem to have caught him, and his appointed cronies, napping.
Perhaps the real question is not whether second-term misfortunes are unavoidable, or why they occur, but how serious they are in the long run. An impeached Clinton still remains wildly popular at home and even more so abroad. FDR did not succeed in packing the court, streamlining the administration, or purging his party, but he did go on to a third and even fourth term. Stay tuned for President Bush’s final chapters.