Second time no charm for presidents, history shows

Obama’s relationship with Congress is key

As President Obama embarks on another four years in office, he is mindful that history is littered with the wreckage of presidents’ second terms.

George W. Bush had the double-whammy of an unpopular war and a calamitous recession. Bill Clinton was impeached over lying about sex with an intern. Richard Nixon quit rather than face impeachment for Watergate. Even Ronald Reagan, whose second term included the beginnings of his cherished collapse of the Soviet Union, was damaged by the Iran-Contra scandal.

Mr. Obama is starting out on the wrong foot by feuding with Congress over the nation’s borrowing limit and gun control, said Al Zacher, author of the book “Presidential Power in Troubled Second Terms.” He said the rare successful second terms have involved presidents who forged good relationships with strong congressional leaders, such as Mr. Reagan with Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. and President Eisenhower with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.

“Getting along with Congress is the issue, and it was for the majority of those presidents who either succeeded or failed,” Mr. Zacher said. “The odds aren’t there for Obama.”

Evening those odds may be why a key Obama surrogate blitzed the airwaves Sunday to talk about a more productive second-term relationship between the White House and Congress.

Senior adviser David Plouffe, who made the rounds of several talk shows, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the president would do “a better job” working with lawmakers this term. “On the issues the president intends to really push and focus on, there’s massive support in the country, even amongst Republicans.”

History lessons

A week after his re-election, Mr. Obama said he understood the lesson about presidents trying to do too much in their final four years.

“I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” Mr. Obama said.

“We are very cautious about that. On the other hand, I didn’t get re-elected just to bask in re-election. I got elected to do work on behalf of American families and small businesses all across the country who are still recovering from a really bad recession, but are hopeful about the future.”

If working with Congress is the key to a successful second term, Mr. Obama’s tone has been notable in reflecting his refusal to negotiate with lawmakers on the debt ceiling. During the final news conference of his first term, on Jan. 14, the president used the language of terrorism to describe House Republicans.

He said Republican lawmakers were trying to hold Americans hostage and were “holding a gun at the head of the American people” by demanding that Democrats cut deficit spending. Mr. Zacher said that attitude is reminiscent of President Wilson, whose inflexibility with Congress during his second term led to the failure of his League of Nations initiative.

“[Mr. Obama] has a hidden ego, which is now coming out,” Mr. Zacher said. “Wilson is one of the presidents who would not compromise, and his failures were due to his unwillingness to compromise. It was a dictatorial mood, which is really becoming apparent with this president.”

At least in terms of the debt ceiling, however, Mr. Obama’s approach may be winning the day. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said last week that colleagues in his party were considering a short-term extension of the debt limit.

New faces

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