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Obama and the curse of the second term

These last few weeks have not been kind to President Obama. His new term is only four months old and already he is mired in several scandals that threaten his ability to govern effectively for the remainder of his time in office. On the surface, any one of these scandals could have major political ramifications for the president, or at the very least force him to fight a costly rearguard action with political capital he might otherwise hope to use implementing his policies.

The president should have expected something like this, however. More than congressional Republicans; Obama's biggest enemy is history. Since at least the Great Depression presidents in their second term have generally experienced internal political crises and scandals that have threatened to unravel their administrations and cast a dark cloud over their legacy.

What is the cause of the curse of the second term however? Does first term presidential hubris simply lead to second term presidential nemesis as surely as night follows day? Or does the nation, content to place the man in the White House a second time, then feel compelled to take him to task for all the short comings and broken promises that they conveniently forgot at election time? Let's look at the record.

In 1936 Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his second win with an electoral victory of 523 to 8, one of the largest margins of victory ever. Inaugurated in January, 1937, (FDR was the first president to be elected in January rather than March, after the passage of the 20th amendment), FDR felt he had a firm mandate from the people to use his radical programs to combat the Great Depression. When the Supreme Court ruled that much of his National Recovery Act legislation was unconstitutional in 1935, Roosevelt vowed to keep on fighting for his programs. Now, in his second term he felt he had the answer.

Roosevelt proposed a court-packing scheme, which would allow the president to appoint additional justices to the Supreme Court. Despite the fact that the scheme had little congressional or public support, Roosevelt pushed hard to make it law, and spent much of the political capital he'd gained from the election. When the bill inevitably failed, Roosevelt's power was significantly diminished, and many predicted the end of his ability to get any of his signature legislation passed.

For Dwight D. Eisenhower, the curse came late in his second term. In May of 1960, his last year in office, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Eisenhower had initially lied about the spy mission, claiming that America did not conduct such missions. When his lie was revealed by Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, Eisenhower lost face at home and abroad, and the Soviets walked out of a planned summit in Paris.

Though Lyndon Johnson's first term was as an accidental president after JFK's assassination, he was not immune from the curse of the second term. After the August, 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, while Johnson was running for his second term, the United States began to actively intervene in the Vietnam War. The 1968 communist Tet Offensive in Vietnam took America by surprise, and despite the military victory, caused most Americans to lose confidence in his administration. Supposedly after a speech by CBS reporter Walter Cronkite, in which Cronkite stated that the war could no longer be won, Johnson said simply “If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America.”

A short time later Johnson went on TV to brief Americans on his policy and what was happening in Vietnam. At the end of the broadcast – without informing his advisers – Johnson stated that he would not run for another term.

The most famous case of second term hubris, and the one with the most damaging consequences, is that of Richard Nixon. Nixon won reelection in 1972 with a margin of 520 to 17 electoral votes, illustrating just how much confidence most Americans placed in him. But then the June, 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate apartments began to garner more and more attention from the press, congressional committees, and the Department of Justice. When Nixon's role in that and other criminal endeavors was revealed his presidency was effectively over.

Ronald Reagan enjoyed considerable popularity during his first term in office, and took every state but Minnesota in his 1984 reelection bid. Yet when a complicated arms-for-hostages deal with Iran became known – while at the same time America was backing Iraq in a war against Iran – congress and the American people began asking tough questions. The scandal grew more convoluted when it appeared Reagan was diverting funds to Central American freedom fighters waging a guerrilla war against communist forces in the region.

Whatever his motives and intentions, the scheme to free hostages did not work, and Reagan had violated one of his most valued policies of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. Even those who otherwise praised Reagan for his leadership admitted that the scheme was ill-thought out and ultimately damaging to American prestige. Congressional hearings had for many Americans recalled the all-too-recent specter of Watergate.

Another incredibly popular president, Bill Clinton, also experienced a major scandal in his second term. In the midst of a congressional probe into Clinton's Whitewater land deal, the president had perjured himself over his extra-marital affair with a White House intern. The crime ultimately led Congress to order impeachment hearings against Clinton, only the second time in American history a sitting president had faced such a humiliating ordeal.

George W. Bush was reelected by the slimmest of margins in 2004, and as conditions grew worse in Iraq and more Americans lost their lives in that conflict, his popularity continued to plummet. Despite the fact that many congressional Democratic leaders such as Hilary Clinton, Harry Reid, and John Kerry all supported the war and called for Iraqi regime change in 2001 and 2002, by 2006 the war appeared to be another Vietnam, and Democrats took up the anti-war mantle. By the time he left office his approval rating was 34%, and his presidency generally considered a failure.

And now Barack Obama faces his second term curse. Questions over Benghazi, IRS targeting of conservative groups, Justice Department subpoenaing reporters' phone records, the increasing problems associated with implementing Obamacare, and the ongoing Fast and Furious scandal are currently plaguing his administration, and his second term has only begun.

The question is: Will these scandals derail Obama's presidency and/or tarnish his legacy?

The answer is: If history is any guide, a little of both. But that doesn't mean all is lost.

FDR ultimately recovered for his high-handed actions during the court-packing scheme, and went on to be elected to an unprecedented third term in 1940 and a fourth in 1944. His overall leadership in the Great Depression and in World War II ensured that many historians would place him at or near the top in many presidential rankings. Still, FDR took a long time to win back his credibility with the American people, with congress, and with his party.

Eisenhower left office in early 1961 under a cloud, his foreign policy blunders clearly damaging credibility his last few months in office. Despite Eisenhower's missteps with regard to the Soviet Union, his leadership in the 1950s, which saw a booming American economy and expanding American influence and power, is generally seen as a success.

Likewise, Johnson's failings as a wartime president are now considered alongside his domestic policies, which saw accomplishments in education and other spheres. Still, one wonders if Vietnam had not devolved into a quagmire, would the ambitious Johnson have run again in 1968?

Reagan is today remembered primarily for his role in helping to end the Cold War against the Soviet Union rather than for the Iran-Contra scandal. Yet his role in the deal remains a black stain on his record, and he enjoyed significantly lower approval poll ratings because of it.

Clinton's economic policies, his balanced budget, and his ability to work with congressional Republicans now generally overshadow the memory of his impeachment, infidelity, and perjury. Clinton was constantly on defensive for much of his second term, however, and, whatever his virtues, he will forever carry with him the humiliating circumstances of his impeachment hearing and the behavior that made it necessary.

With the recent opening of the George W. Bush library in Dallas, Texas, many commentators have stated that the time to reassess Bush's presidency has come. Some opinion polls have even shown that he has enjoyed a similar or even higher approval rating than Obama. His second term, however, saw numerous attacks from many quarters, and many insisted that Bush had lied about WMDs in Iraq and needlessly started a war. Bush received a major blow with the 2006 mid-term elections, which allowed the Democrats to recapture congress and derail many of his programs and initiatives.

Only Richard Nixon completely failed to recover from the curse of the second term. He resigned the presidency in August, 1974, the only president in the history of the office to do so.

Obama will find that his second term will not be as rosy as his first. New enemies will emerge from unexpected quarters, and in the years to come many within his party will criticize his performance in the hopes of furthering their own post-2016 careers. Additionally, many in the press will find it harder to accept him at his word now, and more Americans will view the president with a much more critical eye. For every press conference he holds or speech he makes to deflect blame or justify his actions, that is one less he has to put forward his agenda. In short, expect Obama to be largely playing defense in his second term.

How will this ultimately affect his legacy? With the jury still out on most of these scandals, its still too early to tell. One thing is certain, however. The curse of the second term has struck again.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. Email: