Presidential second terms have a bad reputation. It’s almost enough to make you wonder why President Barack Obama wanted the job.
President George W. Bush saw his popularity dragged into the cellar in his second term by the unpopular Iraq war, the botched government response to Hurricane Katrina and the failed push to privatize Social Security. Bill Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was exposed and led him to become just the second U.S. president to be impeached. Sordid details of his affair with the White House intern made Clinton a punchline and drew headlines around the world.
President Ronald Reagan faced the “Iran-Contra” scandal in which Tehran, though designated a state sponsor of terrorism, received arms shipments with Washington’s blessing. And Nixon? Watergate!
Obama's second term formally opens next week. But he already faces an array of problems that’s enough to make you wonder whether the Audacity of Hope will turn into the Audacity of Heartburn.
“I think he 's going to have a rough second term like almost all presidents,” former Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian said of Obama. “I don't think it's going to be easy. You tend to run out of steam, your staff becomes tired.”
Obama faces pitched political battles on the home front over swollen deficits, gun violence and the slow pace of economic recovery. Crises continue to dot the landscape overseas, including Iran’s nuclear program, a belligerent North Korea, and Europe’s deep financial troubles.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s Oval Office visit on Friday highlighted the obstacles – to say nothing of the dangers – of Obama’s plan to end America’s longest war in 2014. And a handful of investigations into his Administration – over the “Fast and Furious” gun sale program and national security leaks -- could flare up at any time.
Obama has made it clear he knows what often happens after presidents are re-elected.
“I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms. We are very cautious about that," Obama said at his first press conference after defeating Republican Mitt Romney on Nov. 6.
Still,Obama said he had a "mandate" to help middle-class Americans still struggling in the sluggish economy.
"I didn’t get re-elected just to bask in reelection,” he said.
A veteran of Republican and Democratic administrations, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, told Yahoo News that second terms are tough because “you don’t have your best people, you’re more tired, you’re more prickly, and the issues don’t go away and don’t become less complicated.”
“The staffing, the stamina, the focus and fight” are weaker in a second term, the former official added, saying "a lot of the fight was clearly gone from the Bush team" at the end.
White House officials mostly roll their eyes at warnings like this, and say Obama’s legacy is already secure after first term accomplishments like the federal health care law, the overhaul of Wall Street rules, and pulling the economy from what the president has described as the brink of another Great Depression.
Obama's second term plans also seem a far cry from the “very cautious” approach he promised to take.
The president has signaled his top legislative priority is overhauling America’s immigration system – something so politically fraught that he shied from it in his first term despite a campaign pledge to tackle the issue and two years of a Democratic-controlled Congress.
He will also push lawmakers to enact gun-control measures in the aftermath of the slaughter of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut in December. And he has said he wants to work with Republicans on rewriting the tax code.
Obama has – intentionally or not – triggered a fight with GOP lawmakers by picking former senator Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary, nominating a Republican whose past comments on Iran and Israel and sharp criticisms of Bush's handling of the Iraq war infuriated many in his own party.
But Democrats on Capitol Hill point to Obama's stronger position there thanks to the results of the 2012 election. Democrats added to their Senate majority and picked up seats in the House, even though Republicans retain control. And Obama's own decisive win may have humbled Republicans, forcing them to cooperate with him more than they did in his first term, Democrats say.
For their part, Obama aides say they have one major source of leverage in confrontations with Congressional Republicans: The president isn't running for reelection.
Not so fast, says Trent Duffy, a Bush White House spokesman now with the HDMK public policy and communications firm in Washington.
“That’s a nice talking point, but any president, no matter what, cares about who succeeds him, because that person’s going to help define their legacy whether they like it or not,” he said. Bush wasn’t running for reelection either, Duffy noted, and Vice President Dick Cheney wasn't running to succeed him.
By contrast, Vice President Joe Biden is seen as likely to make a 2016 bid.
Duffy also cautioned Team Obama that Bush’s second term shows the dangers of waging early battles over personnel.
While some pundits date the start of Bush’s second-term struggles with the failed drive to privatize Social Security, Duffy said White House insiders knew they were in trouble much earlier with the firestorm over Bush’s nomination in late 2004 nomination of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to be Homeland Security Secretary. Kerik withdrew about a week later after it came to light that he had employed an undocumented immigrant.
That fight was followed in October 2005 with Bush’s nomination of long-time aide Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Critics from both parties lambasted Miers as inexperienced and little more than a Bush crony, and she ultimately bowed out of consideration.
“We kind of stumbled right out of the gate with Kerik, then Miers,” Duffy said.
While much of the lessons of second terms boil down to avoid self-inflicted injuries – scandal, overreach – there are some things presidents just can’t plan for.
“Something unknown is definitely going to happen,” Duffy stressed. “Katrina hit us in the second term.”