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Second terms often problematic for presidents

This news story was published on September 6, 2012.
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By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama might want to think twice before accepting his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Should he win re-election, the thrill of victory could give way the “Second-Term Jinx.”

For more than a century, presidents have run into unforeseen woes in their second terms.

Some have been tragic. Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley were assassinated; Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. More have been political, scandals and controversies that set back their agendas or worse, tarnished their very place in history.

Some of the recent examples:

—Harry Truman watched his popularity drop to a dismal 22 percent in his eighth year in office;

—Richard Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment;

—Ronald Reagan endured the Iran-Contra scandal, the dark mark of his otherwise successful presidency;

—Bill Clinton was impeached for lying to conceal an affair;

—George W. Bush watched unpopular wars sink his popularity.

“It’s almost an unwritten law that the second term is not as good as the first term,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at the Brookings Institution who served on two presidential staffs and advised two others. “Generally, the historical pattern is the presidency is like an hourglass with the sand running out.”

The paradox is that re-election is often considered an endorsement of the president’s first four years. He must win a second term to be validated by the public. Yet their re-election often comes at the very time they might be starting to wear out their welcome, as years of overexposure and endless political battles that reveal every shortcoming are just about to take a toll, said historian Robert Dallek.

Hubris also can lead a president to overreach. Wilson tried to remake the world stage after World War I with a League of Nations. The Senate said no. Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court with allies. The country said no. Bush tried to overhaul Social Security. It never got to a vote in Congress.

And an administration can run out of steam after four years.

“The job of the president and being in the administration is draining,” said Lewis Gould, a presidential historian and author of “The Modern American Presidency.”

“It’s physically and emotionally and psychologically demanding,” he said. “And so you have an arc of coming in and four years and getting re-elected. And there is this inevitable, ‘Aahh … ‘So it’s hard to crank things up again.”

To be sure, winning a second term at the very least can preserve the gains of the first term. If Obama is in office, for example, it would be extremely difficult to overturn his signature initiatives, such as the national health care law and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.

Not everyone agrees with the so-called jinx.

“Balderdash,” said Lee Edwards, a presidential historian at the Heritage Foundation.

He said the debate over a second-term jinx fails to account for the accomplishments during their second term. Clinton signed a pact with congressional Republicans that balanced the budget. Reagan presided over the end days of the Cold War.

Jinx or not, no president would pass up the chance to seek that second term.

“They’re like racehorses,” Edwards said. “All of these gentlemen love to run, want to run, and think they’re the best thing that the country needs at that particular time. The country needs them. How can they say no?”

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