Obama and the curse of the second term

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, May 29 2013 1:15 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama listens to a question about Benghazi during a joint news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, Monday, May 13, 2013, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The president said the US is working with Britain to keep pressure on the government of Syria, strengthen the moderate opposition there and work to push for the end of the hardline regime of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Jacquelyn Martin, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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These last few weeks have not been kind to President Obama. His new term is only four months old and already he is mired in several scandals that threaten his ability to govern effectively for the remainder of his time in office. On the surface, any one of these scandals could have major political ramifications for the president, or at the very least force him to fight a costly rearguard action with political capital he might otherwise hope to use implementing his policies.

The president should have expected something like this, however. More than congressional Republicans; Obama's biggest enemy is history. Since at least the Great Depression presidents in their second term have generally experienced internal political crises and scandals that have threatened to unravel their administrations and cast a dark cloud over their legacy.

What is the cause of the curse of the second term however? Does first term presidential hubris simply lead to second term presidential nemesis as surely as night follows day? Or does the nation, content to place the man in the White House a second time, then feel compelled to take him to task for all the short comings and broken promises that they conveniently forgot at election time? Let's look at the record.

In 1936 Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his second win with an electoral victory of 523 to 8, one of the largest margins of victory ever. Inaugurated in January, 1937, (FDR was the first president to be elected in January rather than March, after the passage of the 20th amendment), FDR felt he had a firm mandate from the people to use his radical programs to combat the Great Depression. When the Supreme Court ruled that much of his National Recovery Act legislation was unconstitutional in 1935, Roosevelt vowed to keep on fighting for his programs. Now, in his second term he felt he had the answer.

Roosevelt proposed a court-packing scheme, which would allow the president to appoint additional justices to the Supreme Court. Despite the fact that the scheme had little congressional or public support, Roosevelt pushed hard to make it law, and spent much of the political capital he'd gained from the election. When the bill inevitably failed, Roosevelt's power was significantly diminished, and many predicted the end of his ability to get any of his signature legislation passed.

For Dwight D. Eisenhower, the curse came late in his second term. In May of 1960, his last year in office, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Eisenhower had initially lied about the spy mission, claiming that America did not conduct such missions. When his lie was revealed by Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, Eisenhower lost face at home and abroad, and the Soviets walked out of a planned summit in Paris.

Though Lyndon Johnson's first term was as an accidental president after JFK's assassination, he was not immune from the curse of the second term. After the August, 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, while Johnson was running for his second term, the United States began to actively intervene in the Vietnam War. The 1968 communist Tet Offensive in Vietnam took America by surprise, and despite the military victory, caused most Americans to lose confidence in his administration. Supposedly after a speech by CBS reporter Walter Cronkite, in which Cronkite stated that the war could no longer be won, Johnson said simply “If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America.”

A short time later Johnson went on TV to brief Americans on his policy and what was happening in Vietnam. At the end of the broadcast – without informing his advisers – Johnson stated that he would not run for another term.

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