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Time is not on the side of second-term presidents

Robin Buckson / AP

The president's first four years at the White House in pictures.

Fresh off re-election, presidents begin their second terms freed from the burdens of campaigning for the White House ever again and, typically, with high hopes and ambitious agendas.

Yet because they are among the few Washington politicians unconcerned about the next election, they are also lame ducks from the very first hour of their second term – and they have a relatively narrow window to accomplish their goals.

While the newly re-elected president may be intent on building a record that would burnish his legacy in historians’ eyes, members of Congress know that he has a dwindling number of months to punish or reward them and to stymie or advance their own legislative ideas.

President Barack Obama will prod Congress to enact an overhaul of the nation’s immigration law, pass further restrictions on gun sales, get more tax revenue from upper-income people and perhaps consider climate change remediation.

From the looming debt ceiling deadline to gun control, and reshuffling his Cabinet – President Barack Obama's second term is front-loaded with potential standoffs with a divided Congress. Republican strategist Mary Matalin discusses.

How much of this agenda he can accomplish will depend partly on his skill in exploiting divisions in Republican congressional ranks and reassuring congressional Democrats up for re-election in 2014 who may be skittish about the president’s plans.

Looming above the other issues is the fiscal dilemma: The ratio of federal debt to national income will keep growing despite the tax increases Obama signed on Jan. 2.

“The president must know that he’s not going to have a very happy second term unless a very large part of the long-run budget problem is solved on his watch,” Rudolph Penner, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, said at a recent panel discussion at the Urban Institute in Washington. Otherwise, Obama will face a series of fiscal standoffs “that greatly restrict his ability to make progress on immigration reform, education, infrastructure, etc.”

Lessons from past presidents
In the past 60 years, there have been five presidents, prior to Obama, who’ve been re-elected to a second term.

Although past outcomes do not determine future performance, all five had their share of disappointments, although two, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, ended up with Gallup ratings in which more than three-out-of-five Americans approved of their performance.

George W. Bush was re-elected with 51 percent of the vote in 2004, with his party gaining four seats in the Senate and bolstering its majority in the House by three. For the first time since 1924, the Republicans re-elected a president and controlled both houses of Congress.

Yet Bush failed to get his plan to redesign Social Security considered by Congress. His party rebelled against his effort to revamp immigration law. And he was pre-occupied with the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which made Bush and his party so unpopular that in 2006, Republicans lost both their House and Senate majorities. Perhaps his only consolation was that his two Supreme Court nominees were confirmed and would likely serve on the high court for decades after Bush returned to Texas.

There’s no universal principle that makes second terms disappointing.

There is, however, a recurring pattern, which has held for 55 years, that in the sixth year of a two-term presidency – for Obama that will be 2014 – the president’s party loses congressional seats: on average 28 in the House and six in the Senate.

That average is skewed somewhat by the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation just two months before the 1974 midterm elections – which ended up in disaster for the GOP.

But even the popular Dwight Eisenhower saw his party lose 47 House seats and 13 in the Senate in the sixth year of his presidency, a worse outcome than the post-Nixon debacle of 1974.

Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

ARCHIVAL PHOTO: President Ronald Reagan is sworn in for second term by Warren Burger.

In Reagan’s second term he signed tax reform into law and began to move to a nuclear arms accord with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But in second terms a president’s flaws – temperamental and managerial – have more time to emerge and to do damage.

Case in point: Reagan’s disengagement from day-to-day administration of the presidency, combined with the exit of James Baker from the post of White House chief of staff and his replacement by the miscast Don Regan.

This helped create the Iran-Contra crisis. The administration traded weapons to an Iranian regime that only seven years earlier had held U.S. diplomats hostage. In return, some hostages held by Iranian allies in Lebanon were released – and money from arms sales was shunted to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

“The president did not seem to be aware of the way in which the operation was implemented and the full consequences of U.S. participation,” concluded the three-man commission Reagan appointed to investigate the affair in 1987.

“What he didn't remember astonished us,” one member of the commission, former senator and secretary of state Ed Muskie, a Democrat, said after the panel interviewed Reagan. “I wouldn't say we considered him a mental patient. But certainly we were all appalled by the absence of the kind of alertness and vigilance to his job… that one expects of a president,” Muskie added.

Clinton’s second term offers different lessons from a different kind of president.

Would Clinton have accomplished more in his second term had it not been for the Monica Lewinsky affair and the resulting impeachment? It’s impossible to know for sure, but what’s striking is how much he did do.

In 2000, despite labor union opposition, he persuaded Congress to give permanent normal trade status to China, opening the way to a vast expansion of trade between the U.S. and China.

Another bipartisan post-impeachment accomplishment of Clinton’s second term was the Gramm-Leach-Bliley law he signed in 1999, which passed both chambers of Congress by lopsided majority. It repealed Depression-era curbs on banks and investment firms and, according to some financial industry observers, helped make the 2007-08 financial crisis worse by making banks more complex and their risks harder to control.

The cautionary lesson of the 1999 financial sector reform is that second-term accomplishments must be judged neither by how bipartisan they were nor by how they looked on the day a president left office, but by their long-run effects.