The second term: hopes and hazards

As Bush begins his second term, he joins a lofty club with a history of political peril.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Throughout American history, presidents have typically sought, and often won, a second term in office - only to see their reputations tarnished by overreaching and sometimes by scandal.

From Thomas Jefferson to Ulysses Grant to Bill Clinton, presidents who have won reelection by wide margins have often finished their second terms under a bit of a cloud. Even with four-time-winner Franklin Roosevelt, historians point to the second term - noteworthy for his efforts to extend his control through all branches of government - as his least successful.

Can George W. Bush avoid the pitfalls of second terms?

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"I don't believe in the jinx theory, but it does seem to happen with regularity," says John P. Burke, a political scientist at the University of Vermont who has studied presidential second terms.

Several factors may explain why some presidents stumble during their second four years. One is a tendency to get sloppy, which can lead to scandals. Another is the "replacement team" factor, in which people with less personal loyalty to the president than the A Team join the administration, bringing their own agendas with them. Third, and perhaps most important, is the hubris that can come with a big reelection victory. Presidents Clinton and Nixon, whose scandal problems were born in their first terms, both won reelection easily - then stonewalled when impropriety came to light.

For Mr. Bush, then, the slim victory margin in November may in fact work to his advantage, if he interprets it correctly, analysts say. Bush's win was historically narrow; he beat John Kerry by just 2.9 percentage points, the smallest reelection margin since 1828. His challenge, then, is to avoid the trap of second-term hubris, and beyond that, to recognize that he's still in the White House by the skin of his teeth, with only a bare majority of public support, say presidential scholars. While Bush has laid claim to a mandate and political capital, they add, watch his actions.

In addition, the fact that Bush's party controls both houses of Congress is significant - an advantage that a reelected Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton did not have. And it could help him make up somewhat for his slim reelection margin. But for a second-term president who has laid out a big first-term-style domestic agenda, Bush has his work cut out for him.

"When he goes to Capitol Hill, even with his own Republicans, he's not going to be able to say, 'Look, I'm overwhelmingly popular and if you cross me, you're asking for trouble,' " says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "The best he can say is, 'I'm a pretty good politician, and you'll probably want to work with me,' rather than, 'Be very, very scared.' "

Much has also been made of the fact that Bush becomes a lame duck almost as soon as he takes his second oath of office. University of Texas historian Lewis Gould has suggested that second terms be dispensed with altogether, and that presidents be limited to one term. Others propose the opposite: Ditch the 22nd Amendment and let presidents run for reelection as often as they'd like.

Neither is likely to happen anytime soon, but the reality for Bush is that the next four years will be anything but dull, especially with Iraq a constant presence in the headlines. And even though he cannot run for reelection, he has many allies in Congress who want to be reelected in 2006 - and want his help with fundraising and campaigning.

"What typically happens is that during the first year after reelection, presidents are at the peak of power," says Professor Green. "In the second year, through the midterm [elections], they retain a lot of it..... Then after that midterm, power declines very rapidly."

So the clock is ticking. Analysts say several items on Bush's agenda - such as tax reform, expansion of his faith-based initiative, and education reform - are probably doable in some fashion. But it's the first item on his domestic agenda - Social Security reform - that will be the toughest.

Bush has pointedly not laid out specifics of how he wants to proceed, beyond the controversial idea of allowing younger workers to divert some of their Social Security money into private accounts. As with first-term legislation, such as the addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, his modus operandi has been to set out broad principles and let Congress work out the details.

In the next two weeks, Bush's bully pulpit will be much in use, first in Thursday's inaugural address, then in his Feb. 2 State of the Union message. In a spate of recent interviews, Bush has struck two basic themes: He has big plans for his second term and he wants to unite Congress, and the nation, in enacting his agenda.

"We got to get moving and get some things done before - before people kind of write me off," Bush told CBS News in an interview Monday.

Given the nation's continuing political polarization - with the vast majority of Republicans supporting the president's agenda and the vast majority of Democrats opposing it - Bush's prospects for success hang in the balance.

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