Two Termers

by John J. Miller on January 12, 2011 · 14 comments

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Has there ever been a U.S. president whose second term was better than his first term?

Why are presidential second terms so often disappointing?

Please enter your thoughts in the comment section.

UPDATE: Thanks to all who posted. Feel free to keep the comments coming. Additional thoughts from readers are here.

  • Mike in Texas

    Burnout. The first two years if Term #1 you throw out your best ideas and work your tail off getting these ideas passed. During this time, the POTUS is in a bubble – completely shielded from the trends developing into issues that will spring up in the 2nd Term. Thus, the POTUS has not studied and discussed these new issues. Therefore the ideas that are generated are not completely thoughtout with buyout from his colleagues in Congress. And the results are not the best for your legacy.

    The other factor is being on the job 24/7/365 trying to keep focused and continued being to bring out the best resolutions for the country. This contributes to quick burnout and fast greying of the hair!

  • Gov Teacher

    I teach AP Government to high school seniors and we’re now in our unit on the Presidency. I’ll be very interested to read the comments to your question and I’ll share them with my students.

    I’d like to offer my own thought (without any research to back it up). Could one reason be that a President’s second term is, in essence, a lame duck session and his political opponents feel more empowered to do battle. That would include ideological opponents within the President’s own party. The President is likely to lose more political fights in that atmosphere, and in some cases may feel a policy preference is not even worth the fight. To lose a high-profile fight with Congress means a mark on the legacy, which is something a President might be considering more in his second term.

  • jjb

    Mission creep? I like the story of Polk. He set out to accomplish four objectives, achieved them, and then left office. Of course, he died a few months later, so perhaps his health was the main reason he did not seek another term. One other note: by my count there has only been one run of back-to-back-to-back eight-year presidencies — Jefferson, Madison, Monroe. That stat does not bode well for President Obama.

  • Anonymous

    All the low hanging fruit have been picked in the first term and the scandals of the first term erode the presidents popularity and power.

  • Joe McDade

    Sadly, Lincoln’s, all 41 or so days of it. I’m guessing things took an upturn between 1937-1940, so perhaps FDR. Do you count those who ascend from the Veep spot? Coolidge had the aftermath of Teapot Dome, et al, right out of the box; 1925-28 doesn’t ring a bell at all, except for the flowering of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Grover Cleveland Alexander’s strikeout of Tony Lazzeri in the ’26 World Series, and the ’27 Yankees.

  • Anon

    Prof. Akil Reed Amar has suggested that it’s largely because Congress feels emboldened in a post-22d Amendment world to take on a lame-duck president in his second term. Consider, for instance, that Congress’s Iran-Contra investigation, Lewinsky impeachment, and heated Iraq opposition occurred heavily in the second term.

    Not that President prior to the 22d Amendment were frequently running for office, mind you. But it was always a very real threat. The second terms of many pre-22d Amendment Presidents (Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson come to mind, as well as perhaps Wilson) were fairly unremarkable compared to their first. Unless someone wishes to dispute that, which I’ll happily accept.

  • Staff

    I think Clinton’s second term was better. The first term was such a disaster for him – failed healthcare, midnight basketball, assault weapons, don’t ask don’t tell, and even the government shutdown (which he managed to shift the blame for).

    People focus on the impeachment procedings in the second term – self inflicted foolishness on Clinton’s part – but in fact by then he had come to accept the Republican majority, and the two managed to collaborate towards a budget surplus.

    Perhaps my thinking is colored by the opinion that the less a Democrat president does, the better, but in this case I think the second time around was actually a step forward compared to term #1.

  • Mick Stockinger

    I think there are many reasons unique to each President’s administration, but in general I think it comes down to two things:

    Executives develop a leadership style formed by their characters and the unique circumstances they are faced with. If the problems they encountered had a nail-like quality, they evolve a tool kit consisting mostly of hammers. This pattern becomes fixed for the rest of their lives.

    When first elected to office, the new administration is like a sports team no one has ever played and for which there is no film. The administration has the ‘element of surprise’ on their side, while the opposition faces a steep learning curve.

    In the second term, the two dynamics converge. The President continues to act in familiar patterns but the opposition now has four years of ‘film’ to help them anticipate all the possible plays. Just as a formidable player like Shaq has a weakness at the free throw line, a President is going to have his flaws exposed and exploited the longer they are in office.

  • Jerry

    I heard David Eisenhower speak profoundly on this subject many years ago. I trust my brief recitation with do justice to his premise: which is a second term is largely shaped by the continuation of the major goals the President brought to his first term. Ergo, the greater the success in the first term in achieving these motivating goals the less the focus and energy a President brings to his second term. This loss of “mission” compounds the difficulty of attracting key staff and members of an administration; particularly since Congress undertook to delay and make uncertain the appointment of key Administration executives and staff.

  • NGlyn

    Presidents are human beings. They are imperfect. The American people are, well, people. They are imperfect. The longer a President remains in office, the more likely it is he will make mistakes. The longer a President remains in office, the less the public wants to hear what he has to say (or so it seems. The exception is probably FDR).

  • Douglas

    “_____ Fatugue.”

    Plus, I think each candidate has a certain vision, and when that vision has reached the practical limits of its expression, then not much more of an inspiring nature can be accomplished.

  • Jwr10x

    From what I have seen it come from the fact that since they no longer have to run for re-election they are “unfettered”.
    They can do and propose what they truly believe since they don’t have to worry about upsetting those who the needed to get elected.

  • Anonymous

    I do not know if there has been a president whose second term was generally acclaimed to be “better” than his first. It would depend on who was polled, and when. Stipulate for the sake of argument that every second term has been more disappointing than the first.

    Perhaps the second terms are described as disappointing because some of the second terms do not involve grand programs of change. A better way to look at it might be that the first term is spent making big mistakes in an attempt to fulfill asinine campaign promises, while the second is spent NOT making so many big mistakes because the campaign for the second term need not involve so many asinine promises.

    I like the thought of boring, do-nothing Presidents who act only reluctantly and only after every other font of problem resolution (The States and the People, respectively) has been tapped. I look forward to the day when the most pressing item on the Presidents daily schedule is a ribbon cutting ceremony for a renovated Boys and Girls Club in Washington or Baltimore.

  • Jody Barankin

    I think that James Monroe’s second term was better than his first (e.g., the Era of Good Feelings; the Monroe Doctrine).
    As to why the “disappointments” attendant to the second terms, please consider the following:
    1) staffing changes filled with persons not within the President’s “inner circle;
    2) the sense of “lame duck”-ness leading to the political necessity of can-kicking some policies down the road;
    3) over-familiarity (by President and staff) of some policies leading to neglect of details and/or failure to provide the proper explanations for actions taken (or not).
    Interestingly, one of the more contentious issues facing the Constitutional Convention was the length of the President’s term of office between a single six-year term and a four-year term followed by possible re-election. It was only because George Washington chose to leave office after two terms that subsequent Presidents chose to respect this precedent and limit their Presidencies to the same eight years until FDR’s decision in 1940 to run for a 3rd term.

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