Shortly after his 1972 re-election victory, Richard Nixon plucked a chord of caution: “Second terms are almost inevitably downhill. The tendency is for an administration to run out of steam.” He got that right. Midway through his second term, he waved bye bye on the South Lawn and flew off in disgrace.
But Nixon is merely an extreme manifestation of what’s known in politics as the “second-term curse.” If Barack Obama seems cursed today – with multiple scandals, and an obstructionist opposition – at least he has plenty of company, dating back nearly 100 years.
Woodrow Wilson’s big dream – a League of Nations led by America – was blocked in the Senate by isolationist Republicans; he served out his second term incapacitated by a stroke. Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to enlarge the Supreme Court so he could pack it with New Dealers; he was blocked by the Republicans, who thwarted the rest of his second-term agenda. Dwight Eisenhower stayed popular in term two, but he was widely assailed for playing too much golf and casting the nation adrift; his GOP got hammered in the ’58 midterms, and his administration was caught lying when the Soviets shot down an American spy plane.
Ronald Reagan was plagued by the arms-for-hostages scandal (from a 1987 news story: “Senate Republicans asserted that President Reagan must apologize to the public for selling arms to Iran and demonstrate hands-on leadership for the first time, if he hopes to save his presidency”). Bill Clinton was nearly brought down by a sex scandal. George W. Bush cratered in the polls because of Katrina (“Heckuva job, Brownie!”) and because he wasted thousands of American lives in a needless war.
Now we have the IRS imbroglio, the Benghazi brouha, the Department of Justice spying on the Associated Press (media-hating conservatives aren’t too upset about that one), plus all the usual second-term headaches on Capitol Hill (a stalled policy agenda; the opposition’s blockage of gun reform; dim prospects for a broadscale budget deal). Plus, Obama is plagued by an ever-voracious news cycle that is measured in milliseconds; not even Bush, at his lowest ebb, had to deal with the snarky ubiquity of social media.
All the while, the clock is ticking. Typically, second-termers have just a 16-month window – from Inauguration Day to the spring of the following year – to achieve anything meaningful on the legislative front. After that, forget it. The congressional midterms intrude, the party out of power has no incentive to help the opposition president; and when the midterm elections are over, the president is treated as a lame duck while everybody is busy buzzing about the next White House race.
As Ken Duberstein remarked the other day in The Washington Post, “Every second-term president since at least Eisenhower with the U-2 (spy plane) has somehow gone into a ditch.” Duberstein should know; he was Reagan’s chief of staff during a particularly bad second-term stretch. And historian Michael Beschloss mused: “Is it mainly a coincidence that every president of the past 80 years has had a hard time after getting re-elected? Or is it somehow baked into the structure of a second-term presidency that some combination of serious troubles is going to happen?”
Gumming the machinery
It’s partly structure, of course – the election calendar, an increasingly emboldened opposition – but politics is highly personal, too. Obama and the Republicans have clashed since day one; as conservative commentator Bernie Goldberg conceded the other night on Bill O’Reilly’s show, Republicans would still hate Obama even if he were to “literally” cure cancer.
And now they have the opportunity to stoke the Washington feeding-frenzy machine, to conduct scandal hearings that will dominate the news cycle (scandal – real or perceived – always dominates). This way, Republicans can create distractions that will further freeze Obama’s agenda and gum up the governmental machinery.
By the way, speaking of gummed machinery: Last week, Senate Republicans refused to vote on Obama’s nomination of Gina McCarthy to helm the Environmental Protection Agency – despite her experience as chief of the EPA’s clean air division, and her past lauded environmental work for Republican governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The reason for their refusal? They dislike Obama’s policies on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. They’re also refusing to move on the nomination of Obama’s Labor Department nominee, Thomas Perez, because they dislike his work (at the Justice Department’s civil rights division) on issues such as voting rights and police abuse. All told, Republicans’ refusal to permit a twice-elected-by-a-majority president to staff his own Cabinet is actually a real scandal.
OK, I digressed.
There’s always the chance, of course, that the emboldened Republicans will overreach – just as they did in 1998, when the impeachment drive against second-termer Clinton wound up backfiring, costing them seats in that year’s midterm elections. Indeed, Charles Krauthammer, the GOP-friendly commentator, warned on Fox News yesterday that Republicans need to dial down the rhetoric on Benghazi: “Stop calling it a huge scandal. Stop saying it’s a Watergate. Stop saying it’s Iran Contra….Just be quiet and present the facts.”
But second-termers have very little margin for error, even in the absence of scandal. As I wrote elsewhere last winter, “(Obama) could beat the traditional curse by scoring breakthroughs on climate change, job creation, education, and infrastructure repair, but that’s akin to saying that a frog can defy gravity by flying.”
Obama said a few days ago, “I sure want to do some governing.” Good luck with that. If he spends the next year playing defense, responding only as he deems it necessary to the drip-drip of details, he can forget governing. Because scandals – whether real or perceived, weighty or phony – tend to take on a life of their own. As one Time magazine journalist observed in 2007, during a low point of Bush’s second term, “In Washington, scandals metastasize, growing and changing until we can’t remember what they were about in the beginning.”
So wrote Jay Carney. Today, as White House spokesman, he’s on damage control duty.
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