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Henningsen: Second Term Curse



(Host) President Obama achieved a great victory last November, but if history is any guide, that victory gave him more of a challenge than a mandate. Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen considers why presidential second acts are often more notable for misfortune than accomplishment.

(Henningsen) There's an historical axiom, Today's solution is tomorrow's problem that President Obama might consider as he begins his final term - as many second terms have resulted in the shipwreck of presidential hopes and dreams.

The so-called Second Term Curse began with George Washington. Re-elected unanimously in 1792, he virtually fled from office four years later, denounced as a dictator for crushing the Whiskey Rebellion, for his pro-British foreign policy, and for supporting big business and commerce at the expense of small farmers and laborers. Thomas Jefferson threw the nation into depression during his second term when he imposed an economic embargo to keep the country out of the Napoleonic Wars. Andrew Jackson took re-election as a mandate to restructure American banking and set the country up for one of its worst depressions. Woodrow Wilson's second term collapsed in a failed effort to bring the U.S. into the League of Nations after World War I. Richard Nixon, of course, never finished his second term because of Watergate; Ronald Reagan became enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal; Bill Clinton was impeached; and George W. Bush got clobbered when he tried to privatize Social Security after winning another term in lsquo;04.

The larger the electoral victory, it seems, the worse the second term, because big winners believe they have overwhelming support to do anything they want -like Franklin Roosevelt. After winning every state but Maine and Vermont in 1936, he tried to pack the Supreme Court to get around conservative justices opposed to his New Deal. The result? The public deserted him, he split his own party, and couldn't get domestic legislation through a newly hostile Congress.

Now, even bad second terms have their moments. After all, Nixon ended the Vietnam War and helped end the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict. Reagan reformed the tax code and negotiated crucial arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton balanced the budget and helped bring peace to the Balkans. But their failures outweigh these accomplishments.

Second term presidents often see mandates when, in fact, voters simply preferred them to their opponent. And they're lame ducks, increasingly marginalized as attention turns to potential successors and the next election. Thus, it's difficult to accomplish broad, significant change.

Perhaps President Obama can beat the historical odds and craft a strong record during his final term. To do that, he might remember his predecessor Lyndon Johnson. After winning in 1964 with the largest popular majority in American history, Johnson said I've got just one year to accomplish his aims. He went into overdrive to create what became the Great Society before the agony of Vietnam destroyed his presidency.

Obama has less popular support and more determined opponents than Johnson, but he does have that all-important year before he loses the initiative that comes with re-election.