Modern presidents believe they must run for and win re-election in order to validate their first terms. Maybe someday one of these presidents will take a page from James Knox Polk, who voluntarily stopped after his 1845-49 term. He came in, did what he said he was going to do, and stepped aside. Today he is routinely ranked among the very good to near-great presidents.
Stepping away after one term may be a shrewd idea. After all, second terms are almost invariably bad.
What didn’t go wrong during the second term of President George W. Bush? His Iraq War policy was met with increasing opposition from the public, going from being largely supported during his first term to being overwhelmingly opposed. In 2005 there was Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster, and one of the five deadlies thurricanes, in the history of the United States. At least 1,800 people perished in the actual hurricane and in the flooding afterwards, and President Bush received criticism for a tepid response and an indifference that had him flying over the scene of the aftermath instead of landing and showing more concern. During the final days of his second term, Bush saw the complete meltdown of the financial system, a great recession with hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost monthly, and a housing foreclosure crisis. Had Bush stopped after one term, as his father was forced to do, he probably would have gone down in history as a midrange president, maybe even ranked ahead of his father. But because of his failed second term he will likely always be rated among the lower-ranked presidents.
President Bill Clinton faced impeachment during his second term, stemming from a White House affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. In December 1998, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton, and in January 1999 the impeachment trial began. The charges were perjury and obstruction of justice. Although the Senate did not convict him on either count, Clinton’s presidency was hamstrung for the remaining two years and his would-be successor, Al Gore, was unable to win the Clinton “third term.” Gore was running during a time of peace and prosperity, but he suffered from the Clinton shortcomings and was not able to win in the Electoral College, even after taking the popular vote.
After winning a second term by carrying 49 of 50 states, President Ronald Reagan saw the Iran-Contra Scandal tarnish his second term. The 1985 scandal, which saw his administration covertly sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages, occupied Reagan’s time and attention and took the starch right out of his second term. At one point there was even talk that he would be impeached and that, from a legal standpoint, the Iran-Contra affair was far worse than Watergate.
And speaking of Watergate, that scandal ruined the second term of President Richard Nixon and forced his resignation. Although Watergate occurred during Nixon’s first term, the whole point of burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., was to gather information to help with Nixon’s reelection campaign and to harm his opponent. The cover-up of the break in happened during Nixon’s second term and unraveled into the worst political scandal in U.S. history, culminating in the resignation of the disgraced chief executive.
President Lyndon Johnson served part of John Kennedy’s term, so many people regard Johnson’s 1965-1969 term as his second one. Those years were plagued by growing opposition to the Vietnam War, racial unrest and civil strife.
Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was reelected in 1956. The following year he suffered a mild stroke that impaired his speech for a while, and he also continued to suffer from a heart condition. In addition, the Recession of 1958 hit the U.S. economy hard. It was one of the largest downturns during the post-World War II boom years between 1945 and 1970, and led to the Democratic Party making major gains in the off-year elections that year.
President Harry Truman served almost all of Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth term, so much so that Truman’s miraculous 1948 election triumph was almost universally considered his reelection to a second term. Truman had so many problems during his second term that he left office with one of the lowest approval ratings in history. He has since rebounded in the estimation of many and is today considered a near-great president, but his second term still went far less smoothly or productively as the first term did.
Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four terms, the only one in history to achieve this feat. Of his twelve years in office, it was his second term, from 1937-1941 that was the most troubled. Disgusted that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional much of his early New Deal programs, Roosevelt engaged in an unpopular and unsuccessful scheme to pack the court in his favor by adding one new justice, up to a maximum of six, for each sitting justice who was 70 years or older and had at least 10 years of service, according to The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. The bill to pack the court failed to gain enough consideration in the Senate. Roosevelt also saw the Recession of 1937-38 cause his party to lose dozens of seats in Congress in the 1938 midterm elections.
Looking at how difficult second terms are, it would be advisable for President Barack Obama to not seek reelection. The election map for him already looks bleak. He is not likely to win any states in the South, and will be shut out in the Great Plains states running from the Dakotas and down through Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. In addition, he has lost considerable support in the Midwest in states such as Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and, yes, even Illinois. That doesn’t leave too much available to him.
The American people were proud of proving to the world that they could vote for an African American president. But that doesn’t mean that white Americans are now comfortable voting for black candidates. The only three states in the entire country since Reconstruction to elect an African American U.S. Senator or governor are Illinois, Massachusetts and Virginia. And of those, the only state to elect both an African American U.S. Senator and governor is Massachusetts. There is a whole line of hill people in Appalachia (from southern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, down through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and northern Alabama) who will just never vote for a black person, no matter what. The only Congressional district in the nation that supported John Kerry in 2004 but didn’t vote for Obama in 2008 was the late John Murtha’s old district in western Pennsylvania. Murtha said in 2008 that the people there were too prejudiced to vote for a black man. He took a lot of criticism for his remark but he was right.
Therefore, Obama would be hurting the Democratic Party and putting it at too big a disadvantage if he were to run again. For the good of the party he should not run. He should accomplish all he can in one term and then step aside and let someone like Hillary Clinton run. She would have a lot better chance in many areas of the country, and in a close election that could make all the difference.
In not running again, Obama would be able to stand above the fray and not couch every decision upon his reelection prospects. He would also be taking off the table the sad but true fact that, if he should be reelected, his second term would almost certainly be a trying one. History has shown this again and again.
The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, William A. DeGregorio, Barnes & Noble Books, 2004