Is President Bush Fated to Fail in the Second Term?





Mr. Shenkman is the author of Presidential Ambition and the editor of HNN.

Hats off to the NYT for the headline above Lou Cannon's Tuesday morning op ed: "Can Bush Break the Second-Term Jinx?"

Every president of the last 100 years has faced debilitating scandals or ennui in their second term. That's a warning light on Bush's dashboard. It doesn't mean he will be similarly enfeebled as his predecessors were. History is never so neat and simple and predictions usually fall flat. But the word jinx nicely captures the untoward possibilities.

Just to review, for those who may doubt the existence of a jinx: Woodrow Wilson failed to win approval of the Versailles treaty ending WW I, FDR failed to pack the Supreme Court and failed (in the off-year elections) to purge his party of conservatives, Harry Truman had Korea, Ike was caught lying to the public about the U-2 flights over Russia, Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-contra.

But were they more than jinxed? Is there something about second term presidencies that invites disaster?

Two forces pull at second term presidents in opposite directions and lead to problems. One is common to all executives. After a certain amount of time you tend to run out of energy. Going through the campaign often wears out the most resilient of people. So they muddle along, don't ask hard questions, think they know the answers, and mistakes happen. This phenomenon accounts for Korea, the U-2 incident, and Iran-contra. In Korea Truman failed to press Douglas MacArthur on the possibility that the Chinese might enter the war. Ike didn't keep a close eye on the U-2 flights, allowing that last dangerous flight to go forward despite hard evidence that the Soviets were now tracking our spy planes. Reagan was asleep when Oliver North and John Poindexter cooked up the diversion of profits to the contras from the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for the hostages (though the president apparently knew about the deal with Iran).

A second force pulls presidents in the other direction: hubris. After winning a second term presidents often feel invincible. This combined with a strong desire to fix their place in history with first-rate accomplishments leads invariably to trouble, as is most readily seen in Woodrow Wilson's second-term apocalyptic visions of peace and freedom. Bush seems most likely to fall victim to the Wilson syndrome. Both evidenced moral crusading in their first terms, which seemed ratified by the election results, giving them a reason to redouble their efforts as crusaders in their second terms.

Teddy White once remarked that presidents tend to replicate the behavior they associate with their success on the assumption that it led to their success, which may or may not be true, and in any case, may only have been true under a certain set of circumstances. As an example: In his first term Wilson was able to succeed in passing path-breaking legislation, teaching him the lesson that an iron-willed schoolmaster could bring unruly legislators to heel if enough pressure were applied. In his second term he tried the same bullying tactics on the Senate when the Versailles treaty was under consideration. Unfortunately, circumstances had changed. The Democrats no longer held overwhelming majorities in Congress as they had during his first years in office and the public by now was weary with the high-mindedness Wilson exhibited.

Sometimes, the first force and the second force dangerously combine. In an attempt to address the first problem--drift--presidents try to reinvigorate their administrations by taking on a series of fresh exciting challenges. Often, however, they overreach, in part because of problem number two, hubris.

Example: Richard Nixon. Following his landslide victory in 1972 Nixon told aides he intended to radically revamp the federal government. He would consolidate cabinet departments, humble his "enemies" in the bureaucracy, and centralize power in the White House. As a first step he demanded the resignations of his entire cabinet (and executive appointees as well) just days after they had celebrated his victory (a victory many had worked hard to bring about). He never had a chance to implement his dreams, of course, because the Watergate scandal led to the unraveling of his administration. But the effort was misguided from the start.

President Bush has already given signs that he is following in Nixon's footsteps. He has announced that he intends to use his political capital to advance a far-reaching agenda. No scandal being on the horizon, Bush will probably be able to get more of what he wanted than Nixon did. But if he is crude and brazen in his use of power, which is likely given the pride he has taken in his victory, he can count on stern opposition, frustration, and ultimately public weariness. Stymied in his efforts, he may be tempted to circumvent the congressional process and achieve change through executive action. Should he take this road, he will almost certainly find that as he looks through his rear window there won't be many people following.

In his first term President Bush often gave in to apocalyptic rhetoric--like Woodrow Wilson. That suited the times, given the war on terrorism. But history suggests that it will be difficult for Bush to sustain his appeal if he persists in propounding apocalyptic visions. While he has more power than he had in his first term by virtue of his election victory and the bolstering of his majorities in both houses of Congress, a president cannot indefinitely hang on to public support without showing results. And results will be hard to come by in his second term. Iraq is likely to remain a source of trouble, good jobs are apt to continue migrating abroad, the deficits will get higher, and another terrorist attack is possible.

A more modest approach might be called for. But this president does not seem to like modest presidencies (like his father's). So we are faced with the likelihood of another second term president who tries to do too much and fails.

As I indicated at the beginning, history is not a crystal ball. Anything could happen. But my advice: Buckle your seat belt. We're in for a wild ride.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

An insightful and illuminating article. There is something to be said for quality over quantity.

W has a couple of advantages vis-a-vis the "2nd term jinx": (1) His first term was such a mammoth disaster in nearly every respect that matters that he starts a second round facing very low expectations (2) although he is famously hyper-stubborn in his refusal to ever admit mistakes, he does learn from them. "Crusade" and "mission accomplished" have not reappeared, for example. If he isn't jailed or committed to a mental institution, the departure of John Ashcroft removes one of the most glaring examples of arrogant incompetency in a glaringly arrogant and incompetent administration, for another example.

On the other hand, this half-president is massively infused with deception, including self-deception. He earned little "political capital" during this past election (the electorate distrusted Kerry more than it still distrusts him), on the contrary, he borrowed political capital like there was no tomorrow. But now tomorrow has come, and four years is not a long time for him to earn and repay his borrowed and stolen goodwill.

Finally, while incompetency in Washington over the past four years has created new problems and challenges for America, older unaddressed challenges have become worse in spite of Bushian denial: international weapons proliferation, overpopulation, resource depletion, global economic inequities, global warming (with its many downside effects, e.g. on disease), and so on. Four years IS a long time for there to be no nasty surprises popping up from any of these blatantly ignored issues. Even if Cheney still calls many of the shots, the buck will stop on Bush's desk.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


Nice widely encompassing disclaimer in your intro, Maarja. Too bad such comments, no matter how often, deftly, or politely they are repeated will never penetrate some thick skulls here (you "elitist jack-booted member of THE left" ! :) ).

Hersch is also not a military expert, and while his speculated Iraq pull-out is perhaps the most plausible scenario (but for medium term political reasons, because the Bush team cannot change its stripes overnight to start really caring about America's long term defense needs) other possibilities cannot be ruled out. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are all neighbors with keen interests in Iraq, and either money or people to supply. There is also the Afghanistan-Northern Alliance-war-lord approach with which the Pentagon is familiar. Not to mention a concept proposed once upon over a year ago, right here, by the same author, of splitting Iraq into three.

Hersch is one of the most brilliant investigative reporters of all time, but his geopolitical acumen may not exceed the Vietnam paradigm seared into his soul.


Maarja Krusten - 11/12/2004

Since this is a general thread about what may happen in the second Bush term, I'm posting this here. I recognize that issues of archival access don't resonte much here on HNN. Still, Bruce Craig just posted a new NCH newsletter, in which he gives his assessment of the new nominee for Attorney General:

"Gonzales is a loyal Bush confidant, a long-time personal
friend of the president, and a staunch defender of presidential
prerogatives and powers. He is credited not only with crafting some of the
administration's most controversial anti-terrorism strategies but also
aspects of President Bush's controversial Executive Order on Presidential
Records (E.O. 13233). He is also thought to be one of the principals behind
the Bush administration's effort to force the premature departure of
Archivist of the United States John Carlin."

NCH WASHINGTON UPDATE (Vol. 10, #45; 12 November 2004)


HNN - 11/11/2004

FDR's attempt to pack the Supreme Court was regarded at the time and by historians ever since as a political mistake. His proposal never even made it out of committee, as I recall.

Victory in '36 went to his head. And he overreached. A classic example of hubris.

It is possible to think of FDR as the greatest president of the 20th century while simultaneously admitting he made occasional mistakes, some quite serious.

Of course, in his third term he proved indispensable. But it was because he switched from Dr. New Deal to Dr. Win-the-War that he got a chance to prove himself all over again.


Howard N Meyer - 11/10/2004

The FDR proposal to reform the Court -- called "packing" by the old guard of the thirties -- was followed by retirements amd replacements headed by Black and Douglas.
And by a Court that completed the restoration of the Fourtenth Amendment to the engine of freedom, equality and justice its 1868 framers intended -- the original intent that present day mongers of an "Original Intent" judiciary ignore.
Read all about it in THE AMENDMENT THAT REFUSED TO DIE, 3d edition 2001.
(And in his 3d term President Roosevelt led the world to free itself from Hitler fascism. Other facisms have however come along)


Maarja Krusten - 11/10/2004

Yeah, well posters on HNN better not dare to call me a part of the Left. You can't call someone who voted for Reagan twice a Leftist. Moreover, my family suffered under Communism, I never got to meet my own grandparents as a result. If anyone ever called me a Leftist, I would demand an apology. And I would light into them with my opinions of that style of "discourse." That type of mud slinging in lieu of argument or debate is just plain cowardly. I don't care how macho some of our HNN posers perceive themselves to be. So, I would immediately call the mud slinger on his or her cowardice.

As to Sy not being a military expert, I agree. But he sure knows about governance, and has written about tough issues, such as the My Lai coverup. I mostly am trying to figure out why he signalled so many times that people cannot give their bosses bad news within the administration. That has broad ranging implications that go beyond just Iraq.


Maarja Krusten - 11/10/2004

You liked that disclaimer, eh? Wander over to Cliopatria and look at what I wrote in thanking Mark Safranski on an entry in Ralph Luker's "mailbag" this evening. I am somewhat less gentle, although by HNN terms, still very polite -- the comments are NOT directed at Mark, BTW.


Charles Christopher Tucker - 11/10/2004

With all due respect to Seymour Hersh I don't think he's painting a black enough picture.

What George W. Bush has done to the U.S. military is to create a situation that will wreck it. Wreck it worse than Vietnam did and in a much shorter time span.

There is already a serious morale problem existing in our armed forces as a result of the successful invasion and completely inept occupation. Our military did the job it was given sufficient strength to do. It toppled Saddam Hussein. It was NOT given sufficient strength to hold Iraq and rebuild it, nor was there a realistic plan developed for doing so before this war was initiated. This is NOT the military's fault. That fault is in the White House and its cabinet.

We are creating terrorists faster than we are killing insurgents. That fact can not be disputed by anyone with any credible arguement. What is not known at this time is how many of those terrorists are wearing U.S. uniforms.

Desert Storm, courtesy of a different Bush War For Oil, gave us Timothy McVeigh who held the record for most Americans killed in a terrorist act prior to September 11, 2001. I asked this question before the war started on a now defunct discussion board: "How many Timothy McVeighs will be coming home this time?"

We don't know that answer and won't know it until they start their own terrorist careers. The situation our troops live under day in and day out in Iraq today is far, far worse than the brief period of Desert Storm.

When we start finding out the answer to my question I don't think Osama bin Laden will look particularly scary anymore. This is part of the legacy that George W. Bush is going to leave this nation, as Timothy McVeigh was part of his father's legacy. It's one of the areas I fear the son will out-do his father in.


Maarja Krusten - 11/10/2004

Worth considering are the undertones in some comments made a couple of days ago by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in a newspaper's online chat. He points to a gap between what the White House seeks and what some senior officials believe can be done militarily. Robert Novak has hinted at big problems in DOD in some of his columns, as well.

I've learned that many HNN posters--especially those who are ideologues or have a set agenda--avoid addressing tough questions by attacking the messenger or otherwise trying to deflect questions that don't fit with their dug in picture of the world. Many people do not even seem to be here to listen to each other, although some do. Some sidestep the issues altogether and seem to most enjoy just flinging tired labels at each other.

I hate to have to waste time with these caveats, but I am anticipating that some readers may not like Hersh. They may fling mud at Hersh, who famously wrote about My Lai during the Vietnam War and who has broken many other stories as an investigative journalist. His most recent book centers on Abu Ghraib.

So let me say at the outset, this is just a few extracts from a Q&A, no need to get anyone's knickers in a twist over what Hersh has written in the past. The Q&A simply reflects one well-connected man's opinion--no more and no less. When you come down to it, there are NO sources cited on HNN that have absolute, watertight credibility and authority for all the posters. We could take potshots at anything anyone posts here, and often do.

Finally, I know Sy Hersh. I talked to him several times in the early 1990s when he was working on a story. He talked to me a bit back then about the type of people who make up his sources, what motivates them, etc. Believe me, he has a wide, deep network. I wouldn't be posting these extracts if I didn't think they were worth considering. That does not mean I am a defeatist. I do not have the militqary expertise to judge whether or not we can prevail in Iraq, I hope we can, but I just do not know. My field of specialty is presidential decisionmaking, not warfare.

So, FINALLY, here are some intriguing extracts from the Hersh Q&A:

"San Antonio, Tex.: Please explain to us why you're sullen and worried, as you posted in your first response? What are your greatest worries? Are they different from what you worry about for our nation?

Seymour Hersh: i worried about the inability to the men running the u.s. govt. to accept information that challenges their assumptions and their belief. it's very frightening and the fact is that our senior military are very reluctant to give bush and cheney and rumsfeld any bad news. sounds insane, doesn't it?"

Along the same lines:

"Seymour Hersh: the military are scared of telling cheney and bush the truth and that will have to end within the next six months. they cannot deliver in iraq what the president wants, and we'll have to start getting out. so i believe anyway. this could lead to a more moderate, or modest, approach. but moderation, if it comes,will have to come from the outside -- there will be no inside push to do anything but expand the current crisis. pretty amazing, isn't it?"

And

"Seymour Hersh: the major media have been part of the problem since 9-11, merely because they have far too often taken the president's public utterances at face value. there also is a terrific unwillingness, perhaps understandable(tho not by me), to make a moral judgment about a president's policies. there are plenty of people on the inside who are worried about the policies, especially among military guys, and i'm sure their views will increasingly become known."

And finally,

"San Francisco, CA: How can democrats demand that the administration be more transparent and responsive to our concerns? Do the republicans really have the unlimited power now to push their agendas that they seem to?

Seymour Hersh: crucial question, and thus far the bush crowd has been able to crush any attempts for more openness, in terms of how they develop policy, etc etc. there seems to be unlimiited power. . . but i'm betting on the integrity of the military. we cannot do in combat what the white house wants done, and at some point the generals and admirals will have to tell the president the bad news. it won't come from us in the press . . . "



History News Network