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The Curse of Presidential Second-Term Syndrome
[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why an understanding of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]
There seems to be something jinxed about a U.S. President’s second term in office, especially by the time we arrive at the 20th century. It doesn’t matter who the President is or his party affiliation. Especially since the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1953, Presidential second terms just never work out very well. It wasn’t always that way although you can argue that the respective second terms of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and William McKinley in 1901, didn’t go too well because both men were assassinated when barely into their second term.
The most unique two-term President is Grover Cleveland. He actually lost re-election to his second term in 1888, but came back four years later to win. He remains the only occupant of the White House to have a split-term Administration, thereby becoming the 22nd and the 24th President of the United States. Cleveland also coined the term “lobbyist” and he did not mean it as a compliment. Cleveland’s second term had barely begun in 1893 when a major depression hit the nation, then called a Financial Panic. He was unable to turn the economic situation around thus advancing the Curse of Second-Term Syndrome.
Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the two-term tradition – it was only a tradition then observed by both parties and not a Constitutional limitation – by running for an unprecedented third term in 1940. FDR cited “emergency” conditions such as the Second World War raging in Europe since September 1939 as a reason for experienced hands to postpone their retirement plans and keep their shoulder to the wheel of responsibility. He said that he would not exempt himself from this call to remain on duty and FDR readily won an historic third term that spanned almost all of this country’s involvement in WWII from 1941 through 1945. FDR actually won a fourth term in 1944, prompting comedian Bob Hope to say, “I’ve always voted for FDR for President. My father before me always voted for FDR for President.”
Our nation did not see another two-term President until Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. Ike’s Administration – “Ike” was his nickname that made a clever campaign slogan, “I Like Ike” – was viewed as a snore at least in retrospect. I can recall a joke from my youth that asked: “Did you hear about the new Dwight Eisenhower doll? You wind it up and it does nothing for eight years.” Oh, where’s Ike now when we need him!
The jinx of Second-Term Syndrome began in earnest with Richard Nixon. Re-elected by a landslide in 1972, less than two years later Nixon became the first President in U.S. history to resign. We all know that the fallout from the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up forced Nixon to resign to avoid the growing possibility of impeachment hearings. Feelings ran so high that many Americans felt that he should have been sent to prison. When Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon in 1975 to avoid a divisive trial, many observers felt this move cost Ford the White House in the 1976 elections. I always thought this ironic because if you had asked Americans in 1970 what they would think of a President who ended the war in Vietnam, brought home our troops, and ended the military draft, most would have pronounced such a man as the most beloved President in history. Nixon did all these things yet was considered one of the most despised Presidents.
We didn’t have another two-termer until Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Perhaps because his Presidency started off with such energy – the Iranian hostages were released exactly as he was taking the oath of office – the Gipper’s second term seemed like a tire with low air pressure. But his final White House years were marred by the Iran-Contra scandal of exchanging weapons for hostages. Col. Oliver North eventually shouldered much of the responsibility (yes, the same Ollie North who now has his own show on Fox News) but many politicians and their allies in the news media tried to pin the blame directly on President Reagan. It might have worked too if these same people hadn’t spent all of Reagan’s first term trying to convince the public that he was nothing more than an “amiable dunce,” a term coined by Washington superlawyer Clark Clifford (who ended his days in an embarrassing Arab banking scandal that made him look like a dunce).
The problem Reagan’s critics faced with Iran-Contra was convincing the public that this so-called dunce of a President was really an evil mastermind who called the shots in the scandal. TV’s “Saturday Night Live” even did a skit on this with Phil Hartmann as Reagan, alternating between a cuddly “Gramps” persona when greeting visitors to the Oval Office, then switching to a fast-talking mastermind as soon as they were gone. The skit was hilarious and showed the world the absurdity of the allegations. Nevertheless, Reagan’s second term ended with a wimper instead of a bang.
Everyone remembers the soap opera that characterized Bill Clinton’s second term with the Monica Lewinsky affair and his subsequent impeachment. Then Bush 44 had the bad luck of presiding over the housing bust and the Recession of 2008 that ended his hopes of finishing his presidency on a high note of achievement. This brings us to President Obama who will begin his second term on January 20, 2013 and will be Commander in Chief through January 20, 2017. What could possibly go wrong? For one thing, it is impossible to predict the problem, scandal, or affair if we look to history as a guide. None of the issues that plagued Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, or Bush were foreseeable but came out of left field.
However, we can examine the political tug-of-war that an incumbent President can have with his own party that bogs down his final years in office. A classic example occurred early in 2005 when the newly-reelected George W. Bush appeared before Congress to deliver his annual State of the Union address. He announced that now was the time to tackle Social Security reform. Bush’s impassioned call to action was virtually the last time this subject was mentioned during his second term. So what happened? There is another word to describe a second-term President – and that’s a Lame Duck. Second Term Presidents seem to occupy the best of two worlds: they will reign for another four years but never, ever have to be judged by the voters again. Unfortunately, the 535 members of Congress won’t have that luxury. Half-way through the President’s second term, in 2014, one-third or 33 members of the Senate and all 435 members of the House will face the voters, and again in 2016, while the President will be home free across the finish line.
So when President Bush announced early in 2005 that they were all going to reform Social Security, the members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, collectively responded with, “That’s easy for you to say, but we have to get reelected and you don’t.” And that, in a nutshell, is why Presidential second terms are anti-climatic at best and disastrous at worst.
President Obama will be tackling some huge problems during his second term that we are all too familiar with: raising taxes, cutting spending, reforming entitlements, reducing unemployment. His lame duck status will embolden him to act whereas his partners in Congress are likely to shrink from making tough decisions. We have already seen a preview with the “Fiscal Cliff” dilemma. An unfortunate result of having career politicians in Congress is that all issues, domestic or foreign, are viewed through the prism of “How will this affect my reelection?” Should the Curse of Second Term Syndrome hold true, then our President will yell, “Charge!” and his troops will answer, “Are you speaking to us?”