By Jeff Greenfield
Poor Barack Obama. After fighting and spending his way to a close but clear re-election, he’s doomed to four years of agony thanks to that “second-term” curse, which afflicts just about every president who has had the misfortune to win another four years.
The litany appears compelling: the martyred Lincoln; Grant mired in scandal; FDR suffering big political setbacks; Nixon’s disgrace; Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal; Clinton’s impeachment; George W. Bush’s collapsing popularity. A second term sounds so unappealing, it’s almost surprising Obama didn’t ask for a recount.
Except, there are two things worth remembering about this “curse.” First, it doesn’t really afflict every second-term president. Second, for many presidents, the woes are rooted in actions and decisions taken during the first term—which raises a dicey question about what might come to afflict this president.
Theodore Roosevelt was enormously popular throughout his “second” term (his “first” term was finishing the assassinated William McKinley’s second). The only reason he did not win an actual second term was that, just after his 1904 landslide, he’d declared he would not run again—a decision he regretted almost immediately. (He ran again in 1912 as a third-party candidate, finishing second.)
Calvin Coolidge, elected in a landslide after assuming the presidency when Warren Harding died, presided over four years of peace and prosperity. He stepped down after, declaring, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”
Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican Party did suffer serious election reversals in the 1958 mid-terms, but Ike’s personal popularity remained very high in his second term; he left with a 59 percent job approval rating, and his vice president came within a whisker of succeeding him.
What about more recent examples? Reagan’s popularity took a hit when the Iran-Contra story surfaced at the end of 1986, but by the time he left office, he had a robust 63 percent job approval rating, and his vice president won a solid popular vote victory and an Electoral College landslide.
And the disgraced Clinton? It’s certainly plausible that his year-long fight to survive scandal and impeachment seriously weakened him. His dependence on his base may have made it impossible for him to reach across the aisle on entitlement reform. But he left office with a 66 percent job approval rating, and his vice president did win the popular vote.
It’s often said that a second-term victory gives a president an exaggerated sense of his own power, leading him to commit the sin of “hubris” that is always the precursor to tragedy. And history offers examples, from FDR’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court, to George W. Bush’s attempt to partially privatize Social Security.
But take a step back and you’ll find a surprisingly neglected aspect of this history: In many cases, it was what a president did before re-election that planted the seeds of disaster.
Look at Vietnam. The escalation of that conflict began early in 1965, with the bombing of the North and the infusion of large numbers of U.S. troops. But the foundation of that escalation came in the summer of 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin, when an (almost certainly phantom) attack on U.S. ships led LBJ to win, from a credulous Congress, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the president to use “all necessary force”—which Johnson interpreted as a virtual blank check.
Watergate? The story exploded early in Nixon’s second term, in the courtroom of Judge John Sirica. But the Watergate break-in and the allied sins of the White House “plumbers’ unit” all took place in the president’s first term—in large measure, to ensure that he’d win again.
The Clinton impeachment? Monica Lewinsky came to the White House as an intern pressed into service because of the government shutdown of 1995. Her affair with the president ended before his second inauguration.
For Bush, the central disaster of his second term was the descent of Iraq into civil war and chaos, and the collapse of the rationale for going into Iraq in the first place—those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. That invasion and the breathtaking failures of intelligence and strategy were rooted in the decisions made in 2002-03.
So, if we’re wise to look at first-term decisions that may come to haunt a second term, what’s the most likely source of future Obama nightmares?
They come, I think, mostly from abroad, where the potential for instability, violence and anti-American hostility could make presidential decisions look very bad. Imagine Egypt turning increasingly Islamist, with a besieged President Morsi—or a successor—repudiating the peace treaty with Israel that has kept the region free of all-out war for 40 years.
Imagine Iraq exploding into a new civil war, or aligning itself with a still-governing Assad in Syria, or with Iran. How would that make Obama’s decision to withdraw from the country look? Pakistan—America’s permanent “frenemy”—is always a step away from turning into a hostile, terrorist-friendly, nuclear power. That step would throw a harsh light on U.S. policy toward that nation.
Should any of those events transpire, expect to hear renewed cries that “the curse of the second term” has struck again. But before joining the chorus, take a hard look at where the trouble really began.