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Why Do Presidents’ Second Terms Go Sour?

Why Do Presidents’ Second Terms Go Sour?

The Bush Administration right now is going through a major bad patch.

Hurricane Katrina, the rising cost of oil, the Miers nomination, and the undropped shoe of the Valerie Plame investigation are but some of its troubles. As a result, Bush’s approval ratings are at the lowest point of his Presidency. And Democrats—and their minions in the media—are whispering excitedly about the Bush White House sliding into terminal lameduckness and even taking back Congress in 2006.

I’d recommend holding off on ordering the champagne just yet. Political situations, like a game of backgammon, can be reversed by a single good roll of the dice.

Katrina is under control, with opportunities for changing the Administration’s big-spender image with the Republican base opening up. The worst of the oil-price increases seems to be over for the moment, being down ten dollars from the Katrina high. Harriet Miers may acquit herself well in the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee (and she’s suffered such abuse in the week since she was nominated, she’s almost bound to do better than expected). The Iraq election on Sunday could be a resounding success. And the Valerie Plame investigation might well end with a whimper, not a bang.

But why is it that Presidential second terms always seem to get into trouble? Clinton’s handling of the exposure of his affair with Monica Lewinsky got him impeached. Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal. Nixon had Watergate and was forced to resign. Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, had to quit after he accepted gifts from a businessman pursuing government contracts. Franklin Roosevelt, having just carried 46 states, tried to pack the Supreme Court and suffered a major political defeat as a result.

Even in the nineteenth century, Presidents often had major second-term troubles. Grant was hit by the Credit Mobilier scandal in the year following his reelection. Jefferson forced the disastrous Embargo Act through Congress and faced a near revolt in New England because of it.

I see three possible explanations for this. One, of course, is mere coincidence. History is full of seeming patterns that don’t turn out to predict the future. The most famous in American history, I suppose, was the fact that beginning in 1840 every President elected in a year ending in zero died in office (Harrison, Lincoln, McKinley, Harding, Roosevelt, and Kennedy). Then Reagan, elected in 1980, finished out his term (despite John Hinckley’s best efforts, to be sure).

Perhaps George Bush’s bad patch will be just that, a bad patch. He has run a remarkably clean White House up to now, after all. And his political fortunes are still a long way from a crisis stage.

Another possibility is what might be called buyer’s remorse (or, in this case perhaps, Miers remorse). Presidents pull out all the stops to get reelected and, having done that successfully, are subject to hubris if they won in a landslide (such as Reagan in 1984 and Roosevelt in 1936). If the President won more modestly, with a deeply divided electorate, such as George Bush in 2004, the leftover discontents are just waiting to kindle trouble at the first opportunity. In either case, the possibilities of a public reaction against the incumbent—now familiar after four years in the White House—are strong.

I personally prefer a third possibility. Human beings are natural-born storytellers, with a narrative instinct that is deep in our genes. There are few things we like better than telling and hearing stories. And all stories have a dramatic structure, often of the boy-meets-girl, boy-pursues-girl, boy-wins-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back form.

The boy-loses-girl phase of a story is known among dramatists as “the second act problem.” First acts almost always end on a high note (in musicals this is called the first-act closer, often a rousing production number or a highly dramatic song, such as the famous “Soliloquy” in Carousel).

But the second act invariably opens with a major problem that has to be resolved for a happy ending: Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan are now clearly both candidates for Mount Rushmore. Or, of course, the problem is not resolved, for a tragic ending: Nixon and Clinton will both be most remembered for their second-act problems, not their real achievements.

Every two-term administration is, in effect, a two-act play in which the first act ends on a high note with the President’s reelection. Perhaps second terms always seem to start with a major problem simply because our story-loving genes demand one, and the media, therefore, try even harder than usual to find one. In anything so complex and vast as a modern American administration, with so many highly competitive reporters examining its every move, they can almost always find one. Then it soon takes on a life of its own.

Perhaps the second term crisis to which American administrations seem so prone is merely a case of life imitating art.