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Obama's second term: What history says to expect

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

(Page 2 of 6)

•Nixon, hands held high, fingers spread in a V-for-victory sign, boards a helicopter on the White House lawn to leave the White House, the first and only president to have resigned in office.

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[Editor's noteThe original version of this story wrongly said Nixon was impeached. He resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment.] 

•Johnson, eligible to run for president again but so unpopular he is about to lose the Wisconsin primary to little-known Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, announces on TV, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

Even generally successful presidents have faced humiliating episodes: for Reagan, the Iran-contra scandal; for Dwight Eisenhower, the U-2 spy plane episode. But there's a difference between difficulty and debacle.

"Generalizations are tricky," says Mr. Greenberg, whose 2003 book, "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image," examined one second-termer. "When we start looking at the evidence, there's not a lot to substantiate the notion."

How can you distinguish between the problems presidents encounter in every term and ones that discredit the entire four years? What's the standard for gauging any president's success?

Even those who have tried to develop measures are cautious about generalizing. In their book, "Addressing the State of the Union," University of Northern Iowa professor Donna Hoffman and Dominican University of California assistant professor Alison Howard use one such tool: calculating how many legislative requests presidents make of Congress – and how many get adopted in the next session.

Critics often deride State of the Union messages – "empty rhetoric," some said after last year's. In fact, modern presidents include specific calls for congressional action – the median is about 31, according to Ms. Hoffman and Ms. Howard, ranging from Carter's 1979 low of nine to Clinton's 2000 high of 87.

On the surface, the numbers might seem to substantiate the difficulties of a second term. Hoffman and Howard's research shows 43 percent of the requests are passed in some form – 51 percent in a first term and only 38.6 percent in the second.

But the issue is more complicated than that, especially when considering early presidents. The nation's early leaders weren't much concerned with legislative requests. Not until Woodrow Wilson did the notion emerge of presidents as what Hoffman calls "legislators in chief."

"When measuring success, I'm not concerned about whether Jefferson got Congress to do what he wanted," she says. "[To him] it would have been anathema."

Greenberg agrees. The intense focus on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is relatively recent. "If you were a reporter in the 19th century, you didn't go over to the White House," he says. "You went to the Senate gallery."

Focusing too closely on what chief executives get through Congress can lead to misconceptions about modern presidents, too. Legislation is only one of their tools. Others include federal agencies, executive orders, appointments, and judicial nominations. Hoffman and Greenberg cite both Reagan and Clinton as success stories.

"You hear people saying [Clinton] squandered his second term," says Greenberg. "He did a lot. Not through legislation. But that's a narrow view of what presidents do." He cites one example: Clinton's executive orders protecting more wilderness areas from development "than any president since Teddy Roosevelt."

"Meanwhile," Greenberg adds, "budget deficits gave way to surpluses, the economy enjoyed its longest continuous expansion [in history], and poverty rates plummeted."


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