The American presidency is jinxed with the infamous “second term curse.” Almost every two-term president has seen his administration crippled, and his legacy tarnished, by a completely avoidable bad decision at the end of his time in office. With President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union Address now behind us, has he done it? Has he broken the curse?
Presidential decisions, not terrible occurrences beyond the executive’s control, feed the curse. Thus, the calamitous partisanship of the 1790s does not count against George Washington, or the Civil War against Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Jefferson was the first to make the big blunder. In December 1808, as he was nearly out of office and with his chosen successor ready to take the reins, Jefferson pushed Republicans in Congress to pass an enormously controversial trade embargo aimed at stopping French and British attacks on US ships. Jefferson reasoned that shutting down all American ports and stopping all trade would force Europeans to respect American neutrality. Instead, exports plummeted 80% and the national economy collapsed. Americans were outraged: “Thomas Jefferson. You are the damdest dog that God put life into,” penned one angry voter. “God damn you.” The opposition Federalist Party won the next round of elections, and Congress repealed the embargo in March 1809, but the damage had been done – Jefferson left office under a dark cloud of public disapproval.
The displeasure continued under Jefferson’s successor James Madison, who, in his second term, took the country into a disastrous war against Great Britain in 1812. By 1815, ill-equipped, inexperienced US troops were on the run, and the national Capitol lay in ruins. If not for Britain’s focus on Napoleon Bonaparte and imperial France, the US would have suffered an embarrassing defeat. In the final peace treaty, no territory changed hands, no agreements concerning US maritime rights were reached, and the pre-war status quo was reestablished – hardly the glorious victory Madison and the Republicans had hoped for.
Imperious Andrew Jackson was the next president to suffer the curse. His war against the Second Bank of the United States was both destructive and unconstitutional. Seething with a deep, personal hatred of banks, as well as a deep, personal hatred of Henry Clay, author and champion of the Second Bank, Jackson vowed to destroy the financial institution after his re-election in 1832. Since the power to create and destroy the bank lay only with Congress, “Old Hickory” resorted to extra-legal methods. He ordered his secretary of the treasury to remove all federal funds from the Bank of the United States. When the secretary explained that such an act would be illegal, Jackson fired him; when the replacement also expressed legal scruples, Jackson canned him as well. It would be the third secretary, Roger Taney of Maryland, who followed orders, removed the deposits, killed the bank, and broke the law. Congress was aghast at the illegality, and promptly held hearings on the matter. Jacksonian Democrats held the majority, however, and President Jackson was never punished for his crimes. Nevertheless, Jackson’s actions led to an economic crisis in 1837 and Democratic defeats in 1840.
Democrats in 1920 were also punished for the actions of their president, Woodrow Wilson. After winning re-election in 1916 by pledging to keep the country out of World War I, he promptly went to Congress and asked for a war declaration. Wilson’s subsequent expansion of executive powers, use of racist propaganda, and violation of civil liberties shocked Americans. Moreover, the president sought to bring the United States into a new global governing system, the League of Nations – a dramatic policy shift that alarmed most Americans. Republicans defended United States sovereignty, rallied the public against the League, and won a landslide in the 1920 elections.
Campaigning for Democratic vice president in 1920 was young Franklin D. Roosevelt. He lost that canvass, but won the presidency in 1932, when, in the midst of the Great Depression, Americans demanded vigorous liberal policies. As brilliant as he was, Roosevelt, too, made a tremendous second term error. In his 1936 re-election bid, Roosevelt won every state but two (Maine and Vermont). His confidence was at flood tide, and he believed that the American people would support a presidential assault on the Supreme Court, which had been striking down his beloved New Deal legislation. In February 1937, he unveiled a plan to enlarge the court from nine to fifteen judges while removing justices over the age of seventy. This would enable Roosevelt to appoint six new judges and change the composition of the court in his favor. His opponents promptly dubbed this brash plan the “Court Packing scheme.” Its attack on the independence of the Supreme Court stunned even Roosevelt loyalists. Roosevelt, perhaps chastened, allowed the bill to die quietly in Congress.
Dwight “I Like Ike” Eisenhower nearly escaped the curse, but in his final days in office he, and the nation, suffered a humiliating revelation. Throughout the 1950s, President Eisenhower had several productive meetings with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. They established trust, reduced Cold War tensions, and signed a variety of weapons agreements. All the while, however, Eisenhower authorized top secret spy plane missions over the USSR, violating Soviet airspace and international treaties. In May 1960, the USSR shot down a U-2 spy plane, flown by a CIA agent Francis Gary Powers. Rather than admit the misdeed and preserve his relationship with Khrushchev, Eisenhower vigorously denied the plane’s existence. The evidence could not be ignored, however, and America’s international credibility was devastated. US-Soviet relations declined precipitously thereafter, and the Cold War deepened.
As we get closer to the present, the curse becomes more familiar. Richard Nixon’s monumental criminality, though implemented in his first term, came to light in his second. His refusal to cooperate with the Watergate investigations and his blatant lies only further discredited him and degraded the office of the presidency. Ronald Reagan’s “Iran-Contra” scheme, wherein operators in the administration illegally funneled money to Nicaraguan death squads by illegally selling weapons to Lebanese terrorists, led to televised hearings and high-level convictions. Though Reagan escaped prosecution, the scandal dealt a blow to his popularity.
With Bill Clinton, of course, the curse came in the form of the Monica Lewinsky debacle. Convinced that Clinton had abused his powers as governor of Arkansas (the “Whitewater” real estate scandal), Republicans pressed for an Independent Counsel to investigate. Clinton consented in 1994, and attorney Robert Fiske was appointed to the task. When his thorough undertaking absolved the Clintons of any wrong-doing, the Republican-controlled three-judge panel that had appointed him replaced Fiske. The panel next selected anti-Clinton activist Ken Starr. Starr stumbled upon the young White House intern, her soiled dress, and sworn statements by Clinton that no sex had occurred. Though the lewd episode had nothing to do with the Arkansas real estate investigations Starr was supposed to be investigating, the president lying under oath about sexual activity was enough for conservatives to believe he was vulnerable. Republicans in the House of Representatives impeached Clinton, but the Senate declined to remove him from office. In this case, the curse backfired on those trying to destroy Clinton: the affair actually boosted his approval ratings. He left office more popular (66%) than when he entered (33%).
The most recent president to suffer the curse was George W. Bush, whose second-term woes can hardly be enumerated: His decision to ignore the vast suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; his sanctioning of political corruption and military atrocities in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; his denial and then defense of the illegal use of torture on prisoners; his authorizing the use of private mercenaries (most famously the Blackwater Company) to side-step rules of engagement concerning civilians; his illegal firing of seven US attorneys for partisan reasons; and his illegal use of federal agencies, such as the IRS, to target liberal and anti-war groups, just to name a few. Some of these policies had been implemented in his first term, but, like Nixon, did not come to light until his second. Nevertheless, they all sank his popularity – which had reached levels as high as 90% after 9/11 – to embarrassing lows. By the time he left office, his approval rating had dropped to 34%.
As of January 2016, Barack Obama has so far avoided his predecessors’ pitfalls. There have been no major failures, disasters, or scandals stemming from the White House in either term. Though Republicans have labored to manufacture crises, such as the Benghazi accusations, none have had much traction, nor have they proven legitimate. If Obama does dodge the curse, he will join the ranks of James Monroe, the only other president elected to two terms to serve out their final four years in relative equanimity.