The phrase “second term curse” is so familiar that it’s become a cliche of American politics. Whether it’s President Richard Nixon’s resignation or President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, presidents tend to have a tough time during the back half of an eight-year presidency.
Nothing on President Obama’s plate comes close to those historical examples. But right now the White House is defending itself against three controversies that distract the president from the agenda he would like to be pursuing: Benghazi, the IRS and the Justice Department seizure of AP phone records all have the administration scrambling.
Why do presidential second terms tend to be so fraught?
Alfred Zacher, a real estate agent in Indiana, says there’s no single explanation.
After reading about Thomas Jefferson’s second-term stumbles, Zacher started thinking – obsessively– about the presidencies he had watched.
“I’m old enough to remember Franklin Roosevelt’s packing of the Supreme Court and his difficulty,” Zacher says. “Lived through the retirement of Richard Nixon and seeing Lyndon Johnson with his difficulty. I said, ‘This second term is troublesome. What’s going on here?’ “
So Zacher spent eight years writing a self-published book, Presidential Power in Troubled Second Terms. By his subjective tally, only about a third of the presidents who won re-election had a successful second term.
“A rather prominent historian asked me last year: Which presidents had a better second term than first term?” Zacher says. He came up with two names: James Madison and Andrew Jackson.
The downward trajectory can be traced to a variety of different pitfalls, from wars to personal scandals to congressional gridlock.
Donna Hoffman at the University of Northern Iowa studies that last measure. After analyzing the amount of legislation presidents got through Congress for the last 50 years, she’s dubious that the “second term curse” is all that bad.
“We often times see that there is a little bit of a drop in terms of what presidents are able to accomplish in the second term,” she says, “but it’s not such a drop that one would go, ‘Aha, there it is. They’re always less successful.’ “
The drop is a little more than 10 percent. She says in a second term, lawmakers start to envision Washington without the sitting president.
“So their political fortunes may start to diverge in that sense, even members of his own party,” Hoffman says, while members of the other party have more interest than ever in investigations and subpoenas.
A ‘Scandal Backlog’
Then there are scandals — self-inflicted wounds that seem to pop up more often after re-election. Partly that’s because these things can take years to come to light.
“President Obama actually went the longest of any contemporary president without a scandal,” says Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College. “So you can think about the current context as also reflecting a kind of scandal backlog.”
Nyhan has studied when presidents are most vulnerable to scandal. His research shows that the danger zone comes during slow news periods when the president’s popularity is especially low among members of the other party. In other words, this moment is a perfect storm for Obama.
“President Obama is unpopular with the Republican base and there’s not much going on in the news,” he says. “When you add the Republicans’ control of the House and the committees there to investigate the administration, President Obama’s at a great deal of risk.”
But no presidency is black and white. In fact, many who endure beatings after re-election go on to accomplish a lot.
Clinton was impeached. Then he worked to get legislation passed, oversaw a growing economy and left office more popular than when he started. President Ronald Reagan endured the Iran-Contra scandal. Then he had major foreign policy victories and wound up an icon.
As David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers, puts it: “In a way, if we define the curse so broadly that it could include bad policies, scandals, personal failings, then you look at presidents’ first terms and there’s also a first-term curse.”
In fact, out of the 44 U.S. presidents, only 21 have served more than a full term. So there may be a second-term curse, but for more than half the presidents, a first-term curse never even let them get that far.