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Monday, November 18, 2013

Presidential 2nd Terms: Why Are They Such a Mess?

The past few weeks have been a tough one for President Barack Obama.  Issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), particularly the inefficacy of the new website, coupled with the extremely low number of registrants, have created a perfect storm for what has been one of the President's primary achievements while in office.  The long fight to improve health care for American citizens has actually come back to bite the President in a very real and dramatic way.

Such is the case with two-term U.S. Presidents.  For whatever reason, history shows that most (though certainly not all) two-term presidents experience their greatest difficulties during the second half of their time in office.  In this respect, President Obama's struggles are hardly unique.  In fact, they are relatively mild in many respects.  Let's take a look at some of the struggles that have plagued many of our nation's presidents who have had the luxury of serving two terms:

George Washington: Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, even America's "indispensable man" as John Adams called him, faced difficulty and scorn during his second term.  As our nation's first president, if fell to Washington to set many of the precedents that the infant U.S. Republic would be required to adopt.  One of these precedents had to do with economic security and prosperity.  In the wake of the American Revolution, the U.S. faced an important crossroad: align its economic and trade interests with the French, who had, of course, been incredibly helpful during America's fight for independence, or, as crazy as it sounded to many, side with Great Britain, their former enemy and mother country.  Long story short, Washington, at the urging of Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to negotiate a deal that created an economic alliance between England and the United States.  What became known as the "Jay Treaty" proved to be an incredibly important and successful economic alliance that dramatically benefited both the United States and Great Britain.  As Historian Joseph Ellis points out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Founding Brothers:
The Jay Treaty, in effect, bet on England instead of France...as being the hegemonic European power of the future, which proved prophetic (136-137).
And though it proved to be a long-term blessing, the Jay Treaty was not popular among the American populace.  Protests and rebellions broke out over what many saw as a "sell out" to their former enemy.  Even Thomas Jefferson called the Jay Treaty "the downfall of the American Republic."  For Washington, the criticism over the Jay Treaty was a low point that, in many respects, forced him out of politics once and for all. Even America's greatest hero, who repelled scorn like Teflon, was not above reproach.

Thomas Jefferson: In December, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson, who had enjoyed a relatively peaceful and prosperous first term in office, received news from his British and French ambassadors that troubled him greatly.  The on-again, off-again, on-again conflict between France and Britain had reached a boiling point, placing American trade interests at risk. Napoleon made it clear that he would stop any American merchant ship bound for British shores, and the British made the same threat for any ship bound for France.  This, of course, angered American merchants who stood to lose a great deal from this European conflict.

Instead of attempting to defend American shipping interests or trying to negotiate some sort of a deal with Britain and/or France, Jefferson (through Congress) passed the Embargo Act, which essentially grounded all American trading.  For President Jefferson, who saw the Embargo Act as "a means for keeping our ships and seamen out of harm's way," the move proved to be the greatest blunder of his presidency.  Jefferson believed that the Embargo Act would put pressure on both the French and British economy, who both benefited and enjoyed the goods that came from American commerce.  Jefferson was wrong.  British and French merchants simply went elsewhere throughout Europe to make up for the difference.  In the end, the only loser was the United States.  Needless to say, American merchants held Jefferson responsible for the blunder.

Ulysses S. Grant: Though President Grant suffered from the loss of some of his supporters, his quest for a second term proved to be relatively easy.  As the hero of the Civil War, Grant held tremendous appeal and despite some allegations of corruption within his cabinet, most Americans believed the President deserved a second term.  Once inaugurated for the second time, however, President Grant faced quite the storm.  The Panic 1873, which was sparked by the fall of the Northern Pacific Railway, sent ripples throughout the American economy.  Grant's ignorance of economic policy only exacerbated matters and led to a 5-year industrial depression.  In addition, the ongoing scandals and allegations of corruption within his cabinet grew to an unprecedented level. And though Grant was never implicated (and was likely never involved) in most of the corruption that plagued his cabinet, the brunt of the responsibility fell at his desk.  Grant's second term in office proved to be extremely problematic and highly ineffective.

Woodrow Wilson: At the conclusion of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson saw an opportunity to create an international coalition that could prevent the atrocities that had nearly crippled Europe from ever happening again.  The League of Nations, which Wilson vehemently believed was in America's best interests, became an important cause during his second term in office. The only problem is that Republicans in Congress opposed American membership in the LoN and favored neutrality.  Wilson campaigned passionately in favor of American involvement in the LoN. He tirelessly toured the country, giving speeches and working out compromises with members of Congress.  Wilson worked so hard that he eventually had a stroke in September of 1919, which dramatically limited his ability to defend his position on the LoN.  Unfortunately for Wilson, Congress voted against joining the League of Nations; a failure that Wilson believed would plunge Europe into war yet again.  He proved to be right.

Harry Truman: As the man who coined the phrase, "The Buck Stops Here," Truman was forced to swallow the very difficult pill that was the Korean War during his second term in office. The escalation of the conflict, which eventually led to nothing more than a glorified stalemate, was laid almost exclusively at Truman's feet.  Truman's passionate belief that the "world must be protected from the evils of Soviet communism" convinced the President that the cost of war was worth the price and loss of life.  Truman's decision to remove General Douglas MacArthur, a decision that was extremely unpopular with the American public, caused the President's approval ratings to plummet.  The frustrating stalemate in Korea, which led to the deaths of over 30,000 American troops, proved to be too much for Truman, who saw approval ratings as low as 22% during his second term in office.

Lyndon Johnson: It was on Johnson's watch that American involvement in the Vietnam War was escalated to an unprecedented level.  Johnson, who like many previous presidents, believed in the "Domino Theory" (the notion that if one nation fell to Communism others would as well), felt that American involvement in Vietnam was essential for the containment of Communism.  As the body count began piling up, Johnson eventually came to see his insistence on victory in Vietnam as an unavoidable curse that plagued his second term.  As he stated:
I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved...if I left that war and let the Communists take over, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser, and we would find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe. 
Richard Nixon: Watergate.  Need I say more?

Ronald Reagan: With his absolute annihilation of Walter Mondale in the Election of 1984, President Reagan appeared to be sailing calm seas during his second term in office.  In the summer of 1985 all of that would change.  The sale of illegal arms to Iran and the funding of Nicaraguan Contras became a scandal that Reagan was never able to shake.  The Iran-Contra Affair became a black stain on a presidency that had, for the most part, been seen as a success.  Reagan's second term also brought with it a $1 trillion dollar increase to the national debt.  This was an additional black eye for a president who had insisted that "Reaganomics" would reduce the national deficit.

Bill Clinton: As the first president in over 50 years to leave behind a debt surplus, most would think that Clinton's second term would be a celebrated success.  Only one problem: Monica Lewinsky.  As we all know, the President was ousted in front of the entire world for being a liar and a cheat.  The Lewinsky scandal eventually led to the Clinton Impeachment Hearings, which were a tremendous blemish and embarrassment on a presidency that had otherwise been successful.  As Clinton himself later stated: "I fought two battles during my presidency: a political and a personal.  I won the former but lost the latter."

George W. Bush: With his successful bid for a second term secure, President Bush believed that the success of the military surge in Iraq would prove to vindicate his decision to take the nation to war in that part of the world.  He was wrong.  In addition, federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which proved to be highly ineffective, fell at the feet of President W.  And if this wasn't enough, the financial collapse and subsequent bailout of 2008 let to George W. Bush receiving the lowest approval rating numbers of any standing president in American history.

Of course, not every two-term president faces difficulties.  And it is just as certain that one-term presidents face severe trials as well.  But for whatever reason, the "Second-term Curse" seems to be a real phenomenon.  One can only wonder what would be the legacy of Abraham Lincoln had he served a complete second term.  Perhaps he wouldn't be seen as the hero he is today.

In the end, the "Second-term Curse" proves that President James K. Polk (arguably the most successful one-term president ever) may have been right when he said: "If you cannot accomplish everything you want as president in one term, then perhaps you aren't fit for the job."

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