A version of this column appeared originally in USA TODAY.
With Americans telling pollsters that they disproportionately disapprove of Barack Obama's job performance in his first term, advocates of his re-election must promise the public that another four years would represent a dramatic improvement.
But to keep that promise the president must overcome a "second-term curse" which constitutes one of the iron rules of the American presidency. Since the origins of the Republic, every re-elected president met with more frustrations and fewer notable triumphs in a second term than in his first.
The record of rocky, often scandal-plagued second terms applied even to the most admired chief executives, very much including George Washington (who coped with wrenching cabinet squabbles, a rebellion in Pennsylvania, and the hugely unpopular Jay's Treaty); Thomas Jefferson (whose Embargo Act left him widely reviled); James Madison (who stumbled into unnecessary war, saw the White House burned by Brits and New England states talking secession), Grover Cleveland (who presided over the devastating Depression of 1893, and top-secret cancer surgery to his jaw shortly after inauguration for his non-consecutive second term); Woodrow Wilson (who suffered a stroke and rejection of his League of Nations plans); and even FDR (who experienced the "Little Depression" of 1937-38, the disastrous "Court Packing" plan, and huge GOP gains in off-year elections before seeking his unprecedented third term in 1940).
Republican heroes Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan both weathered major scandals in their second terms (with resignation of Ike's compromised top aide Sherman Adams, and Reagan's humiliating Iran-Contra debacle) as well as witnessing huge Congressional gains for Democrats two years before they left office. Even more dramatically, Richard Nixon went from triumphant re-election (carrying forty-nine states in 1972) to resignation in disgrace mid-way through his second term, while Bill Clinton's return trip to the White House produced painful polarization and an impeachment crisis.
Most recently, George W. Bush pushed ambitious initiatives for Social Security and immigration reform that both collapsed in his second term, before Hurricane Katrina, Democratic takeover of Congress and the economic meltdown of 2008 added to his woes.
Lincoln never confronted the second-term reverses that afflicted other chief executives because Booth killed him just five weeks after his second inauguration. William McKinley (another popular president who had just concluded a triumphant war) also avoided losing the public’s admiration when he met an assassin’s bullet just six months into his second term.
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