By Walter Shapiro
Now that the last election of his political career is behind him, President Barack Obama can concentrate on braking to avoid the fiscal cliff, re-staffing much of his administration and pausing to reflect on his long-term governing agenda. Then, of course, there is the still-sputtering economy, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the aftermath of the stunning resignatioin of David Petraeus and enough other crises to justify a sign over the Oval Office reading, “Stress for Success.”
But the re-elected president should be worrying about something else as well: the Second-Term Curse.
Dating back to Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 failure to bring the United States into the League of Nations, second presidential terms have almost always been disappointing and sad. There have been successes: Ronald Reagan passing tax reform in 1986 and Bill Clinton balancing the budget. But far more common are thwarted ambitions, scandal and a slow slide towards political irrelevance.
“This time it’s different” would be the likely response from Obama’s true believers. And these acolytes could be correct since historical patterns are merely suggestive rather than Marxist Iron Laws. But still it is likely that sometime before Moving Van Day in 2017, Obama will be embarrassed by at least one of these four factors:
Hubris: For decades, the dictionary definition was Franklin Roosevelt’s ill-fated 1937 effort to pack the Supreme Court to eliminate an anti-New Deal majority. Having just carried 46 states in an electoral landslide, FDR blithely assumed that anything he proposed would be rubber-stamped by a Congress so Democratic that all 16 Senate Republicans could probably have crammed into a Capitol Hill phone booth.
Wrong. With scant warning two weeks after his second inauguration, Roosevelt announced his plan to expand the Supreme Court. The reaction even among many partisan Democrats was that this was an unwarranted power grab. After failing to win a majority of the overwhelmingly Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee, the court-packing plan died on the Senate floor.
There is a potent contemporary example of a president misreading his re-election mandate. George W. Bush told Republican leaders in early 2005 that the partial privatization of Social Security was at the top of his legislative agenda, even though the president had only flicked at the issue during the 2004 campaign.
With the conspicuous exception of Paul Ryan and a few others, congressional Republicans recoiled at the electoral consequences. Democrats were apoplectic on policy grounds. The Social Security plan was never even voted on in Congress. In his mostly unrevealing autobiography, “Decision Points,” Bush himself concedes, “If I had it to do over again, I would have pushed for immigration reform rather than Social Security as the first major initiative of my second term.”
While Obama’s vague re-election pronouncements worked tactically, they provided him with a limited policy mandate beyond educational programs and resisting extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. As a result, an ambitious response to global warming (an issue too hot for Obama the candidate) could prove to be this president’s version of Social Security privatization.
Personnel: Having already churned through three White House chiefs of staff (plus an interim appointee), Obama is no stranger to ever-changing office name plates. The end of the presidential term is the moment to recast the Cabinet as familiar figures like an exhausted Hillary Clinton gleefully try a life without 3 a.m. phone calls.
Finding competent replacements is a challenge for any re-elected president, and it is especially acute for Obama, whose pre-presidential network was mostly Chicago-based. Slowly, the familiar faces like David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs and maybe someday Valerie Jarrett fade away. Tim Geithner, probably the major Cabinet figure whom Obama closely bonded with, is rumored to be moving on.
It is understandable: Life along the corridors of power is debilitating. The allure of a normal life, the lucrative private-sector offers and the understandable human urge to step outside the president’s shadow will make White House going-away-parties a second-term staple. For those few who remain through all eight years, on-the-job burnout is an occupational hazard worthy of OSHA.
Probably every president late in his second term has looked around at the White House staff or his Cabinet and asked himself, “Who are those guys?”
Scandal: One of the saddest press conference statements by a second-term president was Dwight Eisenhower’s 1958 defense of his beleaguered chief of staff, Sherman Adams: “I admire his abilities. I respect him because of personal and official integrity. I need him.” Within days Adams, who had accepted a vicuna coat and other gifts from a New England industrialist, was cleaning out the desk in his West Wing office.
No modern president has been immune from scandal in his second term. Unless history has failed us completely, the sagas of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton do not require elaboration.
Harry Truman, that beloved historical figure of average-guy rectitude, left the White House in 1953 with a record-low approval rating of just 22 percent because of influence-peddling scandals, as well as the Korean War. George W. Bush came close to hitting 25 percent approval in the waning days of his presidency partly because of an aura of incompetence dating back to the heck-of-a-job-Brownie federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
Given Obama’s heavy reliance on drone attacks, perhaps the most relevant cautionary lesson comes from a beloved second-term president. It was stubborn resistance to congressional oversight and impatience with the stodgy norms of national-security decision-making that led to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Iran-contra scandal.
For those who do not remember it, it is hard to write with a straight face about a rogue operation being run out of the White House basement to swap arms to Iran for the release of hostages in Lebanon. And part of the money from Iran went to fund the Nicaraguan contras even though Congress had cut off funding to the right-wing foes of President Daniel Ortega. Throw in a national security adviser arriving in Tehran with a cake shaped like a key, swashbuckling Marine Colonel Oliver North and his blonde White House secretary, Fawn Hall, who helped him shred documents.
With quarter-century hindsight, it sounds like what you would get if the Marx Brothers made a foreign-policy movie. But, in reality, the Iran-contra scandal almost destroyed Reagan’s second term.
The Petraeus love triangle (or was it a rhombus?) is a reminder that a president cannot know everything about his appointees. It also underscores the dangers inherent in erecting marble statues for esteemed public officials prematurely. Other Obama picks for the Cabinet or the White House staff are likely to flame-out over the next four years, although probably with less tabloid trauma. That is the nature of the game in Washington – and why second terms, in particular, can be so cruel.
Timetable: With the exception of an impeached Bill Clinton, every modern president has lost congressional seats in the sixth year of his presidential term. Unlike many seemingly immutable political rules, this one makes sense intuitively. After six years of anyone in the White House (even FDR or Reagan), the act begins to grow stale and voters crave a different kind of change.
What this means is that Obama probably has until the summer of 2014 to operate with maximum political leverage. After the 2014 congressional elections, he may begin to experience the first debilitating signs of lame-duckism. By the summer of 2015, Americans may find the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination more riveting than the seventh year of the Obama presidency.
This is the moment when a president begins to realize that he is not irreplaceable—a transition that Bill Clinton is still grappling with.
Obama may react to the predictable challenges of the next four years with equanimity. But for many a president, the high water mark of the second term is the moment they put their left hand on the Bible and swear to preserve and protect the Constitution.
By Walter Shapiro