6 Presidents Have Had Successful 2nd Terms ... How About Bush?

News at Home

Mr. Zacher is the author of Trial and Triumph – Presidential Power in the Second Term.

The second term has been a time of frustration, failure and even disaster for all but very few of our presidents dating back to the founding of this nation. One could comfortably list no more than six of nineteen presidents previously elected to a second term who experienced success. George W. Bush, the twentieth president to be reelected, and the first reelected Republican since 1924 to control Congress, must face the challenge of that time in office. History may allow some prediction of what his time in office may bring.

Going back in time, even George Washington was not above facing the onslaught of an independent Congress in his pursuing support for a treaty with Great Britain as his second term was drawing to a close. This great patriot, beloved leader, had to use all of his political skill to win its approval. It was only the first skirmish of the ongoing battle between the Congress and the chief executive to determine which of the branches of government would rule. Surprisingly, this drive by Congress to assert its authority has existed regardless of party. It is this ever present struggle between the president and Congress that has been one of the factors determining the success of a second term. The ability of a president to survive the management of unexpected events was another. Further, the character and temperament of a president leading to a spirit of invincibility and hubris has led to failure.

An obvious example of this is Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to pack the Supreme Court following his landslide victory in 1936. The Court had declared some of the New Deal legislation to be unconstitutional and Roosevelt’s solution was to add more friendly members to the Court. The Democratically controlled Congress overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, diminishing the authority of that powerful executive until his efforts to prepare for a possible war restored his power to lead. One could argue that Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky reflected a spirit of hubris, giving a hostile Congress the issue to challenge the Chief Executive.

Jefferson never lost his popularity with the electorate, but despite this, Congress turned against this founding father as his second term drew to a close ending his economically damaging embargo.

James Monroe suffered as a lame duck as those seeking the presidency usurped the legislative agenda from him. U.S. Grant’s second term was plagued by scandals related to graft by his appointees. As a consequence he is customarily listed as the most failed president, despite his popularity as the general who won the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson grandly led the nation through World War I during his second term and believed he had the leadership authority to easily obtain congressional approval of the Versailles Treaty, which included membership in the League of Nations. The Republican Congress rejected the Treaty, demanding changes which Wilson stubbornly refused to consider. His public speaking tour to bring popular support for the Treaty led to his having a paralyzing stroke. He was a shadow leader during his final year and half in office. Of course, the Treaty was rejected by Congress. His was one of the most tragic second terms.

The Vietnam War brought an end to the dramatic career of Lyndon Johnson. His landslide victory after the death of John F. Kennedy produced at first a triumph of legislative achievement implementing his Great Society. The war, however, became unpopular with throngs of protestors. Johnson believed he could not be reelected and withdrew his name from consideration for office. The unpopular war caused him to leave office a failed president. The general unrest that surrounded that war lead Richard Nixon to take steps that triggered his resignation. A form of hubris was there as he covered up illegal covert activities, becoming the only president to resign. A truly failed second term.

The six presidents who can be thought of as having successful second terms were Washington, Madison, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan. All of these had significant challenges and frustrations in their second terms, but they overcame them leaving office having fulfilled much of the agenda they had set out for that term. This required that they somehow maneuver to succeed with Congress, frequently working with an opposing party. They communicated with the American people, and left the nation strengthened by their achievements. Interestingly, Harry Truman is considered to have had a troubled second term as the Korean War, the fall of China and the McCarthy hearings overwhelmed that tenure. History has been kind to him, however, placing his time in office as having been a worthy struggle to save Europe and effectively fight the Cold War. Calvin Coolidge, on the other hand was hugely popular during his two terms in office, yet history has judged him to have been an ineffective president.

What then is the forecast for a second term for George W. Bush? He has a majority in both houses of Congress. He won both the Electoral College and the popular vote, but not by a landslide that so often has led to a spirit of invincibility. He continues to be associated in the mind of much of the public with his leadership following the 9/11 attacks, steadfastly presenting himself as the staunch defender of the nation against terrorist attack, first by invading Afghanistan and then Iraq. This is considered to be the reason he won the election. Defense of the nation will always take precedence over economic issues in an election if there is a perceived foreign threat against the nation. George Bush will call upon the political reserves that accrue from his reelection success and the support he has as the defender of the nation to implement his legislative agenda. This appears to include the privatization of Social Security, retention of his tax cuts, limits on civil law suits and possibly a revision of the tax code.

The administration states that the war in Iraq has two goals. One was the removal of a despot who posed a threat to America and the free world. The objective of the war is also stated to be the establishment of democracy in a Middle Eastern Islamic country to set an example for the rest of the region. But the public has tended to develop opposition to wars that appear to have no apparent victory in sight. Consequently, the nation and Congress must continue to believe in the success of these goals to assure Bush the authority and mandate given by the election. Further, the conservative wing of the Republican Party must maintain its support of Bush in voting for his legislative proposals. The recent reluctance of the House to approve the Intelligence Reform bill Bush publicly supports may possibly reflect a move on the part of the conservatives to assert their independence. And it is not clear how the conservatives and the particularly the Democrats will respond to Bush’s Social Security privatization plan as it affects the federal deficit, which has been swollen by the cost of the war and the tax cuts.

Bush seems to be aware of the history of second term presidents. He will have to work closely with his own party and with the Democrats if he is to succeed with this agenda. He will have to persuade the American people of the merits of his programs. His ability to be an effective second term leader may depend on events in Iraq, on new threats that might arise from Iran and North Korea and possibly even from Russia. The economy will generally take a back seat to protection of the nation in political sentiment, but if higher interest rates, outsourcing and competition from China slow the economy and reduce employment, the Republicans might lose control of Congress 2006. This could exacerbate Bush’s lame duck status. However, if the American public continues to view him as the effective defender of the nation and he can keep Congress under his influence he would have a successful second term.

The two terms of George W. Bush represent a unique moment in American history. For the first time the country faces a terrorist threat from an enemy that is not easily identified. Bush responded by invading Afghanistan and then Iraq. This and future responses to terrorism, the increase in the federal deficit and the possible privatization of Social Security and other legislative goals will shape his legcy. Because of the uniqueness of the many challenges now facing the nation, he may not be popular when he leaves office, but the judgment of history may be, as in Truman's case, more positive.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Leaving aside the rubbery definition here of what constitutes "success", the bifurcation is itself being stretched. Coolidge and Truman, the article acknowledges. were at least border line "successful". It is even less credible to claim that Lincoln and Washington, the two most famous Americans of all time, were somehow failures in office. Lincoln, of course, did not serve very much of his second term, but, in those most few months, presided over the most important military victory of American history. Reverse the status of these four 2nd term non-failures, and then Zacher's 13-6 failure rate (which he describes as failure for "all but very few") becomes instead a 10 to 9 ratio in favor of success. In other words, historically a toss-up, which pretty much sums up W's chances over the coming four years.

mary cordell - 1/20/2005

I find it a tragedy that G.W. Bush will have four more years to divide and mishandle the governing of this nation. What has he accomplished during the past four years? The US is now bogged down in the Middle East,the military is stretched to its limit, most of the world is against us, the economy is in shambles, the nation is divided, major airlines are bankrupt, the environmental advances are being undermined, the rich are richer, the borders are a sieve, federal agencies are used to push white house propaganda such as the medicare bill, and now he wants to dismantle our retirement social security plan. I hope he is a feeble lameduck for four years. That is the best he could do as a leader, since he has been an unmitigated disaster up to this point.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Peter Clarke is right on the money. The "6 Presidents..." essay is so much hokum. As long as Bush strives to achieve his announced agenda the Left will continue to belly-ache about him. STUFF the failed Left!

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

After Dan Rather's announced partial retirement we now see Bill Moyers too calling it quits. As far as I'm concerned, neither will be at all missed.

Indeed, good riddance to'em! Hopefully,more of their ilk will soon follow them into retirement.

Can there be little doubt that had Kerry won the election these jokers would yet be clinging to their jobs, & crowing about the parts they'd played in the defeat of Bush?

And is their quiitting another sign of the immenient demise of the Left-dominated old news media?

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 12/11/2004

Dave, interesting, if leading questions.

1) “Can there be little doubt that had Kerry won the election these jokers would yet be clinging to their jobs, & crowing about the parts they'd played in the defeat of Bush?”

Of course there can be doubt about that wild idea. By what basis do you make it? After all, if you are correct about Rather’s nefarious motives, wouldn’t a Kerry victory be a reason for him to retire, having as you say, played their parts in his election. With a Bush victory, wouldn’t your theory presume that Rather would stay on, so as to create more problems, make up more stories, lick his finger and swirl his mustache (after growing one to look like Duston Hoffman in “Hook,” of course).

2) “And is their quiitting another sign of the immenient demise of the Left-dominated old news media?”

If Dan Rather was really the main source of evidence you have for a liberal media bias (and since you have brought him about in virtually every conversation I have ever had with you on the subject) then by your definition, the liberal media is already gone! That should make me happy since now conservatives will have to think of some other reason why the media keep making up lies about anything negative they say about Republicans or Republican policy.

But alas, I think we both know that so long as the messengers of bad news remain such a great scapegoat to avoid any responsibility or serious critical thinking, it will continue unabated. Thus if Fox News is the only news channel in existence, the Druge Report the only website not banned, and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity made the only radio stations available, they will all continue to lambaste the “mainstream media” and how it is so bias towards liberals, they have to work extra hard against the “establishment.”

I honestly don’t blame you. If I thought it would put my opponents on the offensive, and I didn’t mind fudging the facts a little, I would stick to the story too.