Second Term Blues

A week ago, on Election Day, the election results indicated that Barack Obama will be reelected president of the United States.

You say he’s been elected?  Sorry, folks, that’s up to the Electoral College now.  How soon they forget.

Obama joins a small club … six presidents elected to at least two terms with over 50% of the popular vote both times.  The others? Andrew Jackson; Ulysses S. Grant; William McKinley; Franklin D. Roosevelt; Dwight D. Eisenhower; and Ronald Reagan.

(We don’t have popular vote returns before 1824: it would be safe to say that otherwise George Washington, Thomas Jefferson,  James Madison  and James Monroe would join this list.)

Of the six men, one (McKinley) did not survive his second term; in the other five cases, the incumbent struggled during his second term, particularly during his final two years in office.  The same would be true if we added the pre-1824 quartet to the discussion.

There have been reports that President Obama has invited historians to the White House.  I’ve not been invited, and that’s his loss (yes, I’m serious about that). Reelected presidents all too often ponder their place in history as they await the opportunity to offer a second inaugural address. The legacy question looms large. Already Obama wants to make sure that we historians accord him a place in history that he so ardently desires, because it is in the legacy question that we cast the ballots that he wants to win.

Note that several historians pressed Obama to think about Theodore Roosevelt (especially if they were writing about him).  Obama’s not the first president to have TR on the brain: he was also a Clinton favorite. We all remember what happened during Clinton’s second term, don’t we?

I have bad news for the president. He has two years left to engineer meaningful change that anyone can believe in. Once the midterm elections have come and gone, he will have to contend with members of his own party who want to follow him into the White House, as well as members of the opposition party who can’t wait to run against someone who is not Barack Obama. One of the notable criticisms of his reelection bid was his failure to outline a compelling vision for a second term. One could say the same for several of the people listed above (including Grant). Between the fiscal cliff, cabinet changes, a resignation in the wake of scandal, and lingering questions about 9/11/12, he already has enough on his plate, but unless he chooses to focus on a few issues and (this time) place his presidency behind them, I have reason to believe that the second term will not be much different from the first.

Let’s look a bit more closely at those second terms of the six who won with over 50% twice. Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States proved counterproductive. Grant’s term blew up in 1873, between scandals involving Congress (administration scandals would come later), a resurgence of white supremacist terrorism, a renewal of hostilities in the West with Native American tribes, and a major economic downturn. One will never know what McKinley might have done. FDR’s court-packing plan proved a disaster and he was ineffective in foreign policy through 1939. Eisenhower saw Sputnik, Cuba, Quemoy and Matsu, and the fate of Gary Powers’s U2 flight spark renewed Cold War concerns. Reagan achieved some foreign policy triumphs, but there was also Iran Contra.

In short, what Obama makes of his second chance and whether he can offer the substance that his oratory promises and leads us to expect will tell us a great deal about what a second term might mean. I think things will turn out better for him if he worries less about what we historians will say and more about doing what he has to do to get what he wants done.


5 thoughts on “Second Term Blues

  1. wgdavis November 13, 2012 / 9:41 am

    He already has a legacy.

  2. Bummer November 13, 2012 / 9:58 am

    Bummer chose to be lost in study and research during the election run-up. The “fog of politics” becomes so dense that comprehending the real issues and dilemmas facing our country is impossible. What is the truth? Who knows, no one will give a straight answer. Machine politics and the media has warped America’s ability to rationally choose. The financial cliff, the wars, terrorism, taxation, borders, entitlements, partisan bickering and of course the candidates image and stance on these issues is an impenetrable mind-swamp, to say the least.

    Bummer believed that any candidate that did not appeal to the young, minority and disenfranchised
    voter would fail at the poles. This is not hindsight, this is personal experience from a first voting
    adventure in 1972. Reflecting on several of the presidencies of the past 150 years the “fog of politics” played a major role in those efforts of major change.

    Bummer’s father use to say, “suit up and show up, first things first, do what’s in front of you and play the hand you’re dealt.” If Mr. Obama is this countries president, then history will reflect what he really did, rather than what he believes others think he should do,

    Did Bummer Vote?
    You Bet!


  3. Louis Burklow November 13, 2012 / 11:27 am

    You’re correct, there’s not much a second-term president can accomplish since the 22nd Amendment makes him a lame duck the moment he lifts his hand off the Bible (ironic since Republicans spearheaded that passage but it has term-limited more of their presidents than Democratic ones). Still, there is something Obama can do that would be a back-door legacy: he can argue for his policies forcefully enough that the next Democratic nominee will have to endorse them as well. A lot can change in four years but I believe Obama will still be wildly popular within his party in 2016. If the president plays his cards right the Democratic nominee that year will almost have to campaign on the platform of carrying on the Obama agenda. Since people like your Secesh buddies will still be the face of the Republican party at that time, the Democrats will be running (again) as the safe and sane party. If the economy improves enough I believe that will be a winning strategy. Obama’s legacy will be one perpetuated in the way that FDR’s and Reagan’s were, by his party’s future presidential candidates. That speech he gave at the White House last Friday shows me he’s thinking along those lines too.

  4. Lyle Smith November 13, 2012 / 6:48 pm

    If this New York Times article is accurate, President Obama needs to bring in some different historians or scholars to talk to. He’s talking to people who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about. Or maybe he should have just limited the conversation to only history.

    And why wasn’t the Occupy movement brought up? 150 years from now that’s one subject historians will be writing about as well… President Obama and Occupy Wall Street.

  5. Mark November 17, 2012 / 7:54 am

    As a faithful reader of your blog who usually is in agreement with your sentiments, on this I certainly hope that Pres. Obama does not “offer the substance that his oratory promises and leads us to expect” . We’re already in enough trouble.

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