Obama and the second-term curse

H.W. Brands

Presidents breathe rare air, and re-elected presidents, rarer air still. Only 44 people in American history have held the office of president; Barack Obama is the just 17th to have been elected twice. Rare air sometimes invigorates; more often it makes people dizzy. An oddity of American politics is that nearly every president wants a second term, but second terms almost never turn out well. The re-elected Thomas Jefferson coerced Congress into declaring a ruinous embargo; Andrew Jackson sent the country into a financial tailspin; Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley were assassinated; Woodrow Wilson broke his health in a vain attempt to persuade Americans to join the League of Nations. The unlucky list goes on.

The second-term curse can be ascribed to an evil alignment of influences. Second-termers enjoy no honeymoon; their opponents attack them and their policies from the moment they retake their Oath of Office. Second-termers typically operate with a second-string team. On first election they get their top choices for cabinet and White House positions, but those first picks generally resign from the most crucial — and stressful — offices by end of the first term. Their successors are usually less talented, less energetic, less credible or less reliable.

Second-term presidencies are prone to scandal. Some of this tendency is a statistical artifact. Presidencies in general are prone to scandal, the temptations of power being more than many people can resist. If a scandal occurs during a first term, that president doesn’t get a second term. If the first term is scandal-free, the odds are likelier to catch up with the president in the second term.

But scandals also reflect a relaxation of standards, a loss of vigilance. First-term presidents who attempt  election to a second term (a group that includes every president since Rutherford Hayes) mind their manners and those of their administrations with great care. Once freed of the burden of running again, however, they often let their guard down.

Yet hope springs eternal for second terms, not least among those who achieve them. Second-term presidents can focus on the long run, on issues too large or with payoffs too distant to survive the short-run tyranny that has constrained them theretofore. A first-term president asks how a decision will read in the next day’s papers; a second-term president asks how it will read in the history books. Second-term presidents can ascend the moral high ground of the national interest, as opposed to the party interest, and not be charged with hypocrisy as easily as first-termers.

What does all this mean for Barack Obama? First, he must be extremely careful to avoid scandal. Nothing stays secret for long these days; the slightest slip by him or a subordinate can ruin what remains of his presidency. The four most recent two-term presidencies ended in ignominy or severe embarrassment: Nixon in Watergate, Reagan in Iran-Contra, Clinton in impeachment, Bush in the Katrina bungle. Obama must be very watchful — and perhaps lucky — to avoid a similar fate.

Second, he should concentrate on a few carefully chosen issues. With these he might have a chance of success. In his second inaugural address, he staked a position on immigration reform that would have been bold before the election but that parallels what many Republicans have been thinking after the election results revealed how thoroughly they have alienated Latinos. Expect a bipartisan law before the end of the current Congress. More difficult yet more pressing is a grand bargain on taxes and spending. Already the Republicans have retreated on the federal debt limit; if Obama doesn’t push too hard, he might win the moderate Republican votes he needs to put fiscal policy on a sustainable path.

Third, he almost certainly will devote more of his time to foreign policy, especially in his seventh and eighth years. Presidents are merely coequals with Congress in domestic affairs, but in matters of war and peace and much of what lies between, they enjoy great autonomy. They can embark on wars, negotiate treaties and do all the other things that lie within the purview of the commander in chief and diplomat in chief. Obama might attempt a transatlantic trade pact with the European Union, issue executive orders on climate change or jump-start the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. There is no guarantee of success — foreign policy is hard. But when the approach of 2016 tempts the Republicans to run out the clock on Obama, as it assuredly will, foreign policy will seem like a vacation.

In fact, foreign policy is often a vacation for presidents, which is another reason it beckons second-termers. There’s no ride like Air Force One.

H. W. Brands is the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History.