A Short History of Presidential Second Terms

This column was published in the Laurel Leader Call (Laurel, MS) on May 15, 2012:

As Barack Obama seeks a second term in the White House, one must wonder why he would even want one.  Amazingly, almost every presidential second term has been wrought with severe problems, especially in our modern era.  And almost every chief executive seeks to go home long before the final curtain closes on his final administration.

The only exceptions to second term malaise are George Washington, who did face serious public opposition and outrage over the hated Jay Treaty in 1794, though most of the anger was directed towards John Jay, and James Monroe, whose first term was wrought with several crises – Missouri’s admission as a slave state and the Panic of 1819, but his second was relatively quiet.

We may also count Calvin Coolidge, as a second Harding-Coolidge term, where the Roaring Twenties was in full swing, and Silent Cal saw unemployment reach the unheard of level of just one percent in 1926.

As for the rest, there was no smooth sailing on the turbulent sea of statecraft.

Thomas Jefferson had a disastrous embargo that sharply diminished federal revenues and nearly tanked the American economy, not to mention a near-collision with the belligerent powers in Europe.  His successor, James Madison, faced a foreign invasion by the British, who burn down the White House and much of the capital city in 1814.

Under Andrew Jackson the nation nearly plunged into civil war over the nullification controversy with South Carolina, while Jackson’s political war over the Bank of the United States contributed to the disastrous Panic of 1837 when he left office.

Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley were both shot and killed.

Ulysses S. Grant’s second term was as bad as his first, filled with scandal after scandal, not to mention the Panic of 1873.  Grover Cleveland also dealt with a severe depression, the Panic of 1893 and, had there been anything like public opinion polls at that time, he may well have been in single digits.  Theodore Roosevelt had the Panic of 1907, a serious economic downturn that was so unnerving that it led to the formation of the Federal Reserve Board in 1913.

Woodrow Wilson’s second term consisted of a horrendous European war, the loss of both houses of Congress in 1918 to the Republicans, and a severe economic depression in 1920-21 that saw the unemployment rate rise to 12 percent.  Wilson also suffered a catastrophic stroke in 1919 that incapacitated him for the remainder of his presidency and denied him a much-desired third term.  After making his beloved Treaty of Versailles the main issue in the campaign of 1920, Wilson’s Democratic successor, James M. Cox, was crushed by Warren Harding.

FDR faced a second depression in 1937 that caused the unemployment rate to skyrocket yet again, climbing to more than 20 percent by 1939, nearly the level it had been when he started in 1933.  In Roosevelt’s case, things did not get better.  His third term saw the US entrance into World War II, and his fourth term was marked by his death.

Taking over for FDR, Harry Truman, in his second term, had Korea, an economic recession, the loss of both houses of Congress, as well as extreme unpopularity to the point that he decided not to run for another term in 1952.

Dwight Eisenhower’s second term was smoother than most, but he had to deal with new controversies over school integration, Cuba, Sputnik, a severe recession in 1957, and persistent health scares, including a serious stroke.

If one considers LBJ’s full term as a second Kennedy-Johnson administration, then it would certainly apply with Vietnam, severe riots, and domestic unrest.

Richard Nixon’s second term was one of the worst of all, ending in resignation after the realization that he would almost certainly be impeached and removed from office for the Watergate scandal.  Ronald Reagan had the Iran Contra affair, which severely curtailed his popularity and caused Congress to seriously consider impeachment.  Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his dalliances with a young White House intern, becoming only the second President to face a Senate trial.

George W. Bush’s foreign wars, along with the financial panic of 2008, caused his popularity ratings to fall to a new presidential low, whereby he lost both houses of Congress in 2006 and his unpopularity remained an albatross for John McCain in 2008.

With all this chaos, who would want more than one term?  James K. Polk had the right idea.  He set out to serve just one term when he won election in 1844 as America’s first “dark horse” presidential candidate.  He came into office with a plan that had just four main goals, and he made good on each one.  As a result, he was the most successful single term President in US history and is deservedly placed in the near-great category by most historians.

Barack Obama, though, is no James K. Polk, but he might want to reconsider his desire for a second term as President.  Given our history, we the people definitely should.


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