Second presidential terms are like half-chewed gum; the zest and flavor are gone. Hence the phrase, “second-term curse.” We’ve had 17 presidents who were elected and reelected. History shows the second acts usually fell short.
Why is this? For starters, popular mandates tend to dissipate over time, and public familiarity tends to curdle into boredom or contempt. Second terms often lack purpose and are tarnished by missteps, scandals and hubris.
Assuming Joe Biden and Donald Trump nab their parties’ nominations, we’re in for a second term no matter which one wins. Sharply negative views have accumulated around both during their first terms. Neither would have the benefit of a truly fresh start.
Whoever wins may have to battle impeachment for things they did in their first terms. Old cuts and scars will deepen alongside new wounds. Lame-duck Trump will have criminal trials on his docket and may try to pardon himself, which could launch a long, bruising court fight. Lame-duck Biden will likely face widening investigations into a range of matters, including his son’s business dealings.
As campaign seasons lengthen, governing windows naturally tighten. This makes it harder for any president, first or second term, to get things done.
During Thomas Jefferson’s first four years, he doubled the size of our young nation with the Louisiana Purchase, the biggest — and shrewdest — real estate deal in history. His biggest blunder, the Embargo Act, which devastated a fragile economy, came in his second term.
Grover Cleveland’s first term ushered in good government reforms. He opposed the spoils system, created the Interstate Commerce Commission and modernized the Navy. Although he won the popular vote for reelection, he lost the Electoral College. Four years later, he came back and won a second term, which was overwhelmed by two economic depressions and numerous strikes.
Woodrow Wilson’s first term was marked by significant economic reforms. His second was dominated by World War I, which he promised to avoid, and the attempted ratification of his beloved League of Nations, which he fumbled. He also suffered a severe stroke, incapacitating him during the last 16 months of his presidency.
Franklin Roosevelt took on the Great Depression and changed America during his first four years. Social Security, immense public works, bank deposit insurance, labor laws, securities regulation and rural electrification became realities. His second term started with the botched attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court, followed by another economic downturn and a clumsy bid to purge the Democratic Party of New Deal skeptics. Of Roosevelt’s four terms, his mistake-prone second, most historians agree, was least impressive. His third was consumed by World War II, and the fourth lasted less than three months.
Richard Nixon’s top foreign policy achievements occurred during his first term. His second term was engulfed in Watergate, and that led to an inglorious resignation.
Ronald Reagan’s course correction for America happened mostly during his first term: Renewing national confidence, reducing taxes and spending, fighting inflation, building up the military and breaking the PATCO strike. While his second term set the stage for collapse of the Soviet Union, it was distracted by the Iran-Contra affair.
Bill Clinton’s first term set into motion economic policies that would carry his presidency. This provided second term cushion — although a big chunk was squandered on the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment.
George W. Bush’s first term was, if anything, momentous: tax cuts, a war on terrorism and going to battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the second term, his attempt to reform Social Security washed out. The bungling of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath wrecked his administration’s reputation for competence and that, in turn, poisoned perceptions of his war management.
In his first four years, Barack Obama passed Obamacare, stimulus programs and legislation to make it easier for women to sue for equal pay. Osama bin Laden was also captured and killed. His second term focused on fixing Obamacare’s shortcomings, a disregarded “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria and a nucleararms deal with Iran that would be abandoned by the next administration.
If either Biden or Trump wins, we’ll have a second-term presidency. As the Old Philosopher, Eddie Lawrence, might have said, “Something else to look forward to, hey Bunkie?”
Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan political analyst, pollster and writer based in Louisiana. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a nationwide newsletter on polls and public opinion.