The curse of the second
Maybe there’s no such thing as a happy second-term presidency.
Let’s talk this through. Discussing presidential history is much more fun than discussing HealthCare.gov. Also, I always enjoy having a chance to mention Grover Cleveland.
“He was very unhappy,” said Henry Graff, Cleveland’s biographer. “First, he got cancer of the mouth.” That was at the beginning of Cleveland’s second term. Because the nation was in an economic crisis, the president kept his condition secret and had surgery on a yacht that was bobbing off Long Island. Then it was time for the Depression of 1893.
See? We’re already feeling that things could be worse.
Lately, it really has seemed as if the Obama White House is incapable of producing good news beyond the fact that the debt ceiling wasn’t smashed. Swooning websites, security snoops run amok — there’d be some comfort in believing that it’s all historically inevitable. “In almost every case, you can argue that the second terms have been pretty dreadful,” said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian.
Think about it. Richard Nixon had to resign. Bill Clinton got impeached. George W. Bush had an average second-term approval rating of 37 percent, which the Gallup people say was the worst presidential plummet in modern history.
Woodrow Wilson had a stroke and spent much of his second term in the bedroom. Franklin Roosevelt was one of the country’s most successful presidents, but that was because of Terms 1 and 3. Two was a mess.
In fact, the pattern goes all the way back to George Washington. “Certainly, from his point of view, it was horrible,” said Joseph Ellis, who has written biographies of both Washington and Thomas Jefferson. One of the reasons was the eruption of a hyperpartisan media. When Washington retired, Ellis noted, one Jefferson-backed paper announced: “We can all pray for his imminent death.”
Nothing so soothing as the knowledge that everything we’re doing wrong was done even worse by the founding fathers.
Obviously, there are exceptions to the two-term rule. James Monroe did pretty well, and Dwight Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan was popular when he departed, despite Iran-Contra. But the record does trend pretty hard in one direction. Looking at it, you wonder why more presidents don’t just declare victory and go home after four years. Like James Polk, who often shows up in Top-10-presidents lists. But, then, how often does he come up in conversation? How often do you hear a major politician say: “In the immortal words of James Polk?”
There are worse things than being a second-term president. You could, for instance, be a person who lost to one. Look at poor John Kerry, wandering around the globe having meetings with heads of state we wiretapped. Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to have anything to do but construct new vacation homes. The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that Romney is building one in Utah that has a bookcase that swivels out and leads to a secret room. This is not to be confused with the one in California that has a car elevator. I believe that makes five Romney homes, and a person with five houses is a person with too much time on his hands.
But back to the presidency.
Ever since Congress invented term limits, it’s been a given that there’s just so much a lame-duck president can hope to do, and time is short. In February, President Barack Obama told an interviewer that he wanted to act quickly because “once we get through this year, then people start looking at the midterms.”
That’s the problem. We didn’t get this year! We didn’t even get a couple of months! The way we’re going now, we could wind up looking back on the highlight of Obama Two as the time he lucked out on Syria.
There’s still hope. Bill Clinton’s second term was horrible in so many ways, but we did wind up with the longest economic surge in American history. I believe I speak for us all when I say I would trade an impeachment trial for another one of those.
The very fact that Clinton was teetering on the verge of disaster seemed to cause the American public to rally around him. Do you think that would work for Obama? We don’t want to wish impeachment on him. Or a sex scandal. Certainly not jaw surgery at sea. But maybe something small yet dramatic.
Perhaps the president could do a press event to celebrate the reopening of the national parks and get lost for a few days in the Grand Canyon. Everybody would be reminded of how much they used to like him. He could come back in triumph and restart the immigration reform bill. The cloud over the White House would lift and the website would suddenly be up and running.
I believe we have a plan.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.