The second-term curse

After winning re-election, President Obama now faces what many historians and commentators call ...

Adam Clymer / New York Times News Service /

WASHINGTON —

Now that President Barack Obama has overcome Mitt Romney, “super PACs” and a sluggish economy, he faces a challenge with deep roots in political history: what historians and pundits call the “second-term curse.”

It is almost a truism that second terms are less successful than first terms, especially domestically. Franklin Delano Roosevelt lost his hold on Congress with his 1937 plan to pack the Supreme Court. Ronald Reagan faced the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998. Richard Nixon resigned to avoid that fate in 1974.

Even George Washington had angry mobs surrounding his house in Philadelphia to denounce him for the Jay Treaty with Britain dealing with the aftermath of the Revolutionary War; they wanted him to side with France.

But despite these and other failures, most second-term presidents also have accomplishments to be proud of, though perhaps shadowed by a tinge of failure.

Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a veteran of the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, said there were several explanations for the second-term curse.

One is that presidents try to push their best ideas when they first take office, often leaving them, he said, without “a whole new set of ideas” for the second.

Presidents also select the best members of the White House staff or cabinet when they first take office. When the pressure cooker of Washington or better jobs lead those first choices away, their successors are often not their equals.

Roosevelt may have had the most accursed second term. The biographer Jean Edward Smith called it “a disaster.” After the 1936 death of Louis Howe, his closest adviser for years, he had no one to tell him what a bad idea the court-packing scheme was. It split his party. Conservative Democrats deserted him and allied with Republicans to deny him almost all domestic legislation.

And while that hurt Roosevelt politically — Smith said he “shot himself in the foot” — he followed with an even worse decision, cutting federal spending in the belief that the Depression was conquered. That brought on a deep recession. With that decision, Smith wrote, Roosevelt “shot the country in the foot.”

The margin of victory

Overwhelming victory can often lead to second-term hubris, persuading a president that the country thinks he can do no wrong. As Lou Cannon, the Reagan biographer and Washington Post White House reporter, observed: “Landslides are dangerous to the victor.” Roosevelt lost only two states in 1936; Nixon lost only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in 1972.

Reagan lost only one state in 1984, and the next two years were “the least successful of Reagan’s 16 years in office,” including his years as governor of California, Cannon said. Even a narrow victory can create overconfidence. In 2004, George W. Bush won 50.7 percent of the vote, which was no landslide (even compared with his 48.3 percent share four years earlier). But he treated the victory as a huge mandate, and plunged ahead with a plan to privatize Social Security in 2005, as he had promised during his re-election campaign.

But the Social Security plan went nowhere. Republicans cringed, and Democrats eagerly united in opposition.

Second-term presidents are also lame ducks, parrying ambitious would-be successors in the opposition and in their own party. Dwight Eisenhower often complained of the recently enacted 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms. But earlier presidents faced the same problem, because tradition back to George Washington had established the same term limit, until Roosevelt ran for his third term.

It’s not always a curse

But are second terms inevitably cursed?

Richard Norton Smith, a presidential scholar at George Mason University, argues for a more nuanced approach to measuring them.

Eisenhower, who easily won re-election, is his prime example. He lacked new ideas, and he lost key cabinet officers and his chief of staff, Sherman Adams. He was embarrassed when a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and Nikita Khrushchev scuttled a Paris summit meeting in response.

But Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock in 1957 to keep Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas from thwarting court-ordered school desegregation. And his 1961 farewell address classically warned, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

Most important, Eisenhower kept the peace with the Soviet Union, an accomplishment hardly predictable in the ’50s.

For President Clinton, there was the first balanced budget in decades, achieved in 1997 because Republicans wanted an accomplishment that they, too, could claim. And Mr. Clinton gained international respect for forcing the Serbs to halt a genocidal campaign in Kosovo without putting NATO troops on the ground. But impeachment was a grave scar, not only for him, but for his accusers as well. Months of debate over the issue led to Democratic gains in the House in the midterm 1998 elections.

Roosevelt accomplished little domestically in his second term, beyond the appointments of Supreme Court justices who shaped the law for many years. But his oratory and cunning moved an isolationist nation and Congress to side with Britain and France against Germany. And he began rebuilding the nation’s military as World War II loomed. He also made a brilliant personnel choice, bypassing senior generals to elevate Gen. George Marshall to the post of Army chief of staff.

Bush failed to achieve many legislative goals — privatizing Social Security, liberalizing immigration and overhauling the tax code. But he did win a vast increase in spending on AIDS treatment and prevention in Africa and a modest stimulus measure in 2008. And his most substantial achievement was the Troubled Assets Relief Program, a $700 billion program to rescue banks caught in the subprime mortgage mess.

Nixon achieved little domestically in his foreshortened second term. But after the Paris Peace Accords were signed just after his second inauguration in 1973, American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam and prisoners of war were released. In the Middle East, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy that fall ended the Arab-Israeli war. Nixon also believed that the role of the United States in overthrowing President Salvador Allende of Chile was a signal success, though today it seems a grave mistake.

For Reagan, the troubles of his second term were offset by the 1986 tax law, which closed loopholes and used the savings to lower tax rates, and his arms control agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union.

Presidents cannot control everything in their second terms, and Obama has a few obstacles that are special to him.

The president and Congress must be willing to work together, which in a deeply partisan Washington may be difficult to accomplish in the next four years. And like other modern presidents, Obama must cope with a “snarky” news media, said Smith, the George Mason University scholar — media that magnify anything that looks like success, or, especially, failure.