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Alfred J. Zacher

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Why Most Second Term Presidents Fail -- and What Obama Can Do to Beat the Odds

Posted: 10/01/2012 1:58 pm

Only 19 U.S. presidents have been elected to a second term. Out of those, only seven avoided a troubled or failed second term. Should this second-term curse enter into the decision to vote for Barack Obama? If this bleak record of second term presidents is relevant, that would give the country about a 38% chance of the nation experiencing an improved security and economy during Obama's second term.

What were the challenges that faced those who had troubled or failed second terms, and what factors allowed others to succeed? And, if Barack Obama is reelected, can he overcome these challenges to become a member of that select group of successful second term presidents?

What lessons might Obama learn from history, confronted with a Congress dominated by Republicans? Further complicating this challenge is the apparent disappearance of the traditional spirit of compromise, presenting Obama with obstacles rarely experienced by a second term president. Based on history, the following factors can provide invaluable guidance for presidential success.

First, the president must have provided defense against foreign or domestic threat. Secondly, the nation must believe that the president has retained or expanded economic, political, and/or social opportunity. Third, the president must have effectively led Congress. Fourth, the president must avoid a spirit of invincibility, of hubris.

The list of those who prevailed in their second term includes George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Overwhelmingly, the source of failure for second term presidents has been their inability to successfully work with Congress. Eight second-term presidents have faced troubled or failed second terms due directly to the age-old fight between Congress and the White House.
How then have some presidents coped with a Congress having a majority of the opposing party during their second term?

With Democrat majorities during his second term, Dwight Eisenhower worked quietly behind the scenes with the Senate Majority leader Lyndon Johnson to gain approval of his legislative agenda. Ronald Regan developed a close relationship with the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neal, to fulfill his legislative goals. On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson faced a Republican Congress that opposed the League of Nations, which was never approved. Votes were there for approval had the president allowed compromise. But in this case, Wilson, not Congress, refused to compromise.

Early in his second term, Bill Clinton developed successful relationships with Congress by appointing Erskine Bowles, his chief of staff, to work with Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in formulating debt and tax reduction legislation that led to a budget surplus.

So how will the temperament and character of Barack Obama achieve success in a second term challenged by a Congress with significant Republican control? There was a recent article in a Sunday edition of the New York Times entitled "Obama Plays To Win In Politics and Everything Else," by Jodi Kantor. The author paints a picture of Obama that gives insight into his nature and how he might function as a second term president. The author says Obama is a "voraciously competitive perfectionist, an overachiever." According to the author, Mr. Obama's will to win -- and fear of losing -- is in overdrive, and he tends to overestimate his capabilities.

What can one predict about a second term for Barack Obama, particularly with these qualities of character in mind? As the need for a resolution to major legislation approaches, it will take an unusually skilled second term president to deliver solutions to the financial problems facing the nation. Will Obama emulate Wilson -- who would not compromise -- or be more like Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton who figured out how to beat the odds?

To avoid falling prey to the challenges of the second term, Obama must figure out how to work with Congress. Given his particularly strong and competitive spirit, which might hamper negotiations, he should consider appointing an intermediary with the skills of Erskine Bowles to work with Congress on his legislative proposals. Success will occur only if a reelected Barack Obama can achieve the unique temperament required to work with his administration and the nation to move to the center and discover ways to reach meaningful compromises. He also will need to have a Congress who is also willing to compromise and move to the center, to pass the legislation this country so desperately needs.

 
 
 
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