NIXON HAD WATERGATE, Reagan had Iran-Contra, Eisenhower had Sherman Adams, and Clinton had Monica Lewinsky: It’s an article of faith that presidents, once reelected, wander into error and scandal. This claim seems especially true in the postwar age, when divided government has frustrated chief executives and the Twenty-second Amendment has clipped their wings. In our time, second-termers have been laid low by congressional obstructionism, harassment, and investigations, as well as by their own apparent hubris. Indeed, no sooner had President Barack Obama triumphed over Mitt Romney than Washington wise men began prophesying a sea of troubles arising from what Doyle McManus called an “iron rule of history” and Adam Clymer dubbed the “second-term curse.”
But no preordained logic dictates post-reelection failure. Yes, divided government remains; yes, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is being his usual magnanimous self. But second terms offer opportunities as well as dangers. In their return engagements, presidents bring to their jobs wisdom and experience that newcomers lack. They have more incentive to consider the long-range consequences of their policies. They may have purged mediocrities from high-level posts and promoted abler staffers. By year five, Obama should just be hitting his stride. The question is whether he can find the resourcefulness to exploit his opportunities.
EVERY SECOND-TERMER since Dwight Eisenhower has had to reckon with the opposition party running at least one chamber of Congress, and yet few left the White House empty-handed. Some, like Eisenhower, simply passed items from their rivals’ wish lists. The Republican loss of Congress in 1954 reinforced Ike’s pragmatism. Today’s pundits like to reminisce about Ronald Reagan sharing drinks with House Speaker Tip O’Neill in the 1980s, but the original model of bipartisanship was Ike’s evening sessions (also lubricated) with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Liberals managed to get Ike, a reluctant integrationist, to back a civil rights bill, which took steps (albeit baby ones) to stop racial discrimination in voting. Other laws, such as the 1958 National Defense Education Act, served both liberal ends like funding education and conservative ones like strengthening the cold war military. Never much of an ideologue, Ike seemed happy not to have to deal with his own party’s rabid right wing.
Of course, handing over the policy reins to the opposition isn’t an option today. But there are other ways in which presidents can accomplish plenty in the face of a hostile Congress. After the Monica Lewinsky affair, pundits piously claimed that Bill Clinton had squandered his second term. Under the radar, however, Clinton was getting a lot done—including, for example, carving out one of the strongest conservationist records of any president in history. In the obscure 1906 Antiquities Act, Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt found a useful tool to safeguard millions of acres of public lands from development by declaring them national monuments. The special interests griped, but in his last two years Clinton aggressively issued a flurry of executive orders, protecting more land in the contiguous 48 states than any other president since Teddy Roosevelt. These were also the years when budget deficits gave way to surpluses, the economy enjoyed its longest continuous expansion, and poverty rates plummeted.
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These achievements were domestic; in foreign policy, presidents can act with an even freer hand. Between IranContra and the Robert Bork nomination, Ronald Reagan’s back nine is often seen as something of a failure. But the fallout from the worst scandal since Watergate helped to purge the administration of ideological zealots, empowering his moderate secretary of state, George Shultz, who steered Reagan away from his first-term posture of Strangelovean apocalypticism. Rambo rhetoric gave way to liberal reasonableness as Reagan recognized the reformist intentions of Mikhail Gorbachev. By 1987, a new age of détente—or better—was at hand. If Reagan deserves any credit for helping to end the cold war, it was because he pirouetted from hawk to dove.
Clinton also took up foreign policy when he found himself with an uncompromising Congress. After a poor first-term record in international affairs, he emerged as perhaps the finest foreign policy president since John F. Kennedy. He waged war in Kosovo to stave off another slaughter and achieved a historic peace in Northern Ireland. Instead of the feckless Warren Christopher and Anthony Lake, Clinton relied on a superior team that had gained experience during the helter-skelter first term.
Other presidents have recovered lost ground late in the game. Even George W. Bush, whose second term was by all accounts disastrous, improved dramatically in foreign policy, cashiering Donald Rumsfeld, taking the car keys away from Dick Cheney, and beginning to belatedly fix his calamitous war in Iraq.
The question today, therefore, isn’t whether Obama will succumb to some mystical tide of history. It’s whether he has learned enough in his first term about the instruments of governing to wield them more effectively. Unfortunately, Obama shows little evidence of having developed an LBJ-style mastery of legislative wheeling and dealing. He still defaults to a highly abstracted rhetoric of reconciliation—it was there again on election night—and yet, in the actual give and take of negotiations, he makes the elementary error of giving away the store before securing concessions. It now seems possible he will endorse a Simpson-Bowles style budget plan—or to permit loophole closures instead of tax hikes on the rich—that would put new burdens on the middle class. Where Congress’s cooperation is needed, Obama will need a larger repertoire of negotiating moves—better cajolery, fiercer tenacity, shrewder tactics.
In other respects, though, he has begun to display a new sure-footedness. Over the summer, Obama authorized new benefits for the children of illegal immigrants, proving that presidents can act unilaterally in a wide range of policy realms, and if they operate within the law and with a modicum of popular support, they can tally up achievements. He also bravely acted by executive order to ensure that church-run institutions can’t deny women birth-control coverage in their insurance plans. Both moves, no doubt, were aimed at shoring up the loyalty of key Democratic constituencies, but they also showed that Obama isn’t above exercising his executive authority when he sees fit.
Even before his reelection, a few prominent Obamaphilic journalists had wrapped him in the mantle of greatness. This was premature: No president denied reelection has ever earned that status. But Obama’s victory on November 6 provides him the chance he has long sought. After all, while none of the post–Twenty-second Amendment two-termers has staked a clear-cut claim to greatness, neither Eisenhower nor Reagan nor Clinton would have had a shot at the distinction without the achievements of their second terms. A second term makes the claim to the pantheon possible. Throughout the fall campaign, Obama said he needed more time, not just to fix the mess he inherited but also, he implied, to fulfill the lofty promises of 2008. Now he has it.
David Greenberg is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “The Myth of Second-Term Failure.”