What is it about second presidential terms that makes them fall so flat?
You would think that presidents would get better with experience. But history shows second terms are almost always less productive than first ones. They often lack purpose and are marked by missteps, scandals and hubris. That’s true for Republicans and Democrats.
When America decides whether to renew Barack Obama’s White House lease in November, voters will be focused on the ups and downs of his first term. But they should also think about prospects for a second act.
The dozen presidents who were twice elected and served two full terms tended to get the most done in their early years when they had political momentum — and public familiarity had yet to curdle into boredom or contempt.
Second-term blues have been around a long time. During Thomas Jefferson’s first four years, he doubled the size of our young nation with the Louisiana Purchase, the biggest — and shrewdest — real estate deal in history. But in his second term came his biggest blunder: the Embargo Act, which devastated the country’s fragile economy.
Franklin Roosevelt’s first term changed America forever. Social Security, public works, bank deposit insurance, securities regulation and rural electrification became reality. Despite a colossal re-election victory, FDR’s second term started with the botched attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court. That was followed by a clumsy bid to purge the Democratic Party of New Deal skeptics — and then another steep economic downturn. Of Roosevelt’s four terms — the third was consumed with World War II and the fourth lasted less than three months — his mistake-prone second, most historians would agree, was the worst.
Richard Nixon, who resigned less than two years after a landslide re-election, counted his top foreign policy achievements during his first term. His second, of course, was engulfed in the Watergate scandal.
Most of the big things Ronald Reagan did as president were accomplished during his first few years: renewing national self-confidence, reducing taxes, reviving the economy, building up the military and breaking the PATCO strike. His second term, in comparison, was much less dynamic. Though the 1986 Tax Reform Act was notable, the Iran-Contra affair was a costly distraction.
Bill Clinton’s first term set into motion economic policies that would carry his eight-year presidency. After his party suffered a painful drubbing in his first midterm election, it forced a correction that brought more realism, fiscal discipline and, ultimately, huge budget surpluses. A booming economy gave President Clinton a political cushion for his second four years in office, but a big chunk of it was squandered on the Monica Lewinsky-impeachment mess, an uncomfortable time of missed opportunity.
It’s hard to argue that George W. Bush’s second term was more momentous than his first. In his first term, he passed gigantic tax cuts, launched the war on terrorism, and went to battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. After re-election, his attempt to reform Social Security died with barely a whimper. Bungling Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath wrecked his administration’s reputation for competence and that, in turn, poisoned perceptions of his war management. Though his Iraq surge strategy ultimately proved successful, it came after most voters had lost confidence.
There is a rhythm to two-term presidencies. They start with a honeymoon. But then the window of opportunity to get things done shuts down when midterm elections heat up. There is another, shorter, governing window followed by the re-election campaign. Going into the second term, the chance to do big things diminishes as lame duck status kicks in.
As campaign seasons lengthen, governing windows tighten. This makes it harder for any president to make big things happen, especially when the fresh opportunity of a new presidency has dissipated in a second term.
This situation, of course, raises the question of whether we should limit presidencies to a single term. After all, if second terms are so disappointing, why not amend the Constitution to get rid of them?
Ron Faucheux teaches presidential election history and political strategy at George Washington University and is the author of “Running for Office” (M. Evans & Co., 2002).