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Cover Story

Obama's second term: What history says to expect

The myths and realities of second-term presidents – and what they portend for Obama.

By Robert A. LehrmanCorrespondent / January 19, 2013

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks about the fiscal cliff late last month at the White House in Washington. This is the cover story in the Jan. 21 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Charles Dharapak/AP



They sit outside the Oval Office beside a table still piled with Christmas gifts: four White House aides waiting for the president. It is January 1997. They're supposed to talk with Bill Clinton about his inaugural, laying out themes for his second term.

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Three of them agree on one thing. It's time to retire that worn-out phrase they'd used so much in the past four years – "bridge to the 21st century."

"We've got to be straight with him," Michael Waldman, Mr. Clinton's chief speechwriter, tells the others.

The door to the Oval opens. Clinton walks out. Without even saying hello, he says: "I don't see why we can't use bridge to the 21st century."

Mr. Waldman wrote later about the answer they all chorused: "Absolutely, sir."

"We were all well aware of the curse of the second term," he comments in his book "POTUS Speaks." "[F]ew had worked out well."

Today, well into that 21st century, Barack Obama is about to become the 21st president of the United States to serve a second term. He'll deliver his inaugural against a backdrop of commentary, much of it about the "curse" Waldman mentions.

"Triumphant Obama Faces New Foe in 'Second-Term Curse,' " read one headline a day after the 2012 election.

"Can Obama dodge the Second-Term Trap?" asked another.

Googling "second-term curse" yields as many as 4 million results. Lots of people believe it – including President Obama, at least in part. "I'm well aware of the history of second-term overreach," he has said.

But does that mean it's true? Or is the truth closer to what Rutgers University presidential historian David Greenberg termed in a recent New Republic piece – "The Myth of Second-Term Failure"?

Whether one believes in the curse or not, second-term presidents inevitably confront problems both unexpected and familiar. Obama will, too. Does the past hold any clues about how to overcome them?

According to Waldman, back then Clinton was taken with the ideas of Yale University historian Stephen Skowronek. Waldman remembers Clinton arguing that the best-remembered presidents "are those who take bold stands to upend the existing order."

OK, but how?

First, some background.

* * *

Those 21 second-termers include three presidents who were elected to second terms but didn't complete them, either because of assassination (Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley) or resignation (Richard Nixon). It also includes four who assumed the office after the death of a sitting president and then were elected to a second term (Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson).

Second-termers aren't sprinkled evenly throughout American history. Five of the first seven US presidents won second terms: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson.

In the 100 years between Jackson and F.D.R., the US only had seven. But in the past 32 years, it's had four out of the last five: Ronald Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama – only George H.W. Bush missed out.

When it comes to the last half century, the second-term curse might seem real. For several of the seven modern second-term presidents, a single image of failure overshadowed many of their achievements:

•Clinton, before impeachment proceedings, looks straight into the TV cameras to utter the most famous line of his presidency: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."


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