Commentary Magazine


The Second-Term Curse

Did the Obama administration lie about the nature of the attack on our post in Benghazi last September? Yes. Did a leak investigation by the Department of Justice end up as a general intelligence-gathering operation against the Associated Press? It would appear so. Did the Environmental Protection Agency waive certain fees for groups it considered ideologically simpatico while compelling groups it deemed hostile to pay such fees? So we are told. Did the Internal Revenue Service, an independent agency but part of the Treasury Department, subject conservative groups to enhanced scrutiny based on criteria such as having an interest in “taxes”? Yes.

Welcome to the second term.

Second terms don’t go well, at least not while the White Houses are living through them. Think of it. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term featured a second economic turndown during the Depression and a disastrous (failed) effort to pack the Supreme Court. During Harry Truman’s second term (technically his only full term, but go with me here), China fell to the Communists and the Korean War was fought to a bloody standstill. Dwight Eisenhower’s featured a corruption charge against his chief of staff and a crisis over a spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union. It’s hardly worth enumerating the horror of Richard Nixon’s second term. Ronald Reagan’s second term was dominated by the Iran-Contra scandal, Bill Clinton’s by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and George W. Bush’s by Hurricane Katrina, the civil war in Iraq, and the financial meltdown.

Later on, of course, these second terms may look better. Social Security, the foundational program of Big Government, came into being in FDR’s second term, and he won a third. Truman firmed up the pillars of the Cold War during his second term. Eisenhower began the space program and solidified the postwar economy. Reagan hastened the demise of the Soviet Union and enacted a successful tax reform. The second Clinton term featured budget surpluses and a booming economy. But for those working in these administrations and for those who supported them at the time, second terms are usually a nightmare—so much so that one wonders why presidents want them.

Aside from the obvious answer—that no one gives up being the most important person in the world willingly—there are practical political reasons. First, a president must run to secure a second term to succeed in the final two years of his first. He would become a lame duck the minute it appeared he was giving up the reins of power; his party would be looking ahead to its next standard bearer and the opposition would cease to take him seriously. Second, he needs another four years to secure the gains of the first four. The best example of this is ObamaCare, which would have been shelved under a Republican president.

Of course, no president expects his second term to go awry. George W. Bush thought the year 2005 was going to end in triumph in Iraq, as a third successful election would lead to the formation of a democratic government. He also believed he had enough political capital to reform Social Security. Bill Clinton surely never imagined his dalliance with an intern in 1995 would nearly ruin him in 1998. Ronald Reagan could never have envisioned that the destructive consequences of an outreach to Iran and his efforts to free Nicaragua from Stalinist rule would somehow be braided together a year after his reelection.

Here’s what is surely unimaginable to President Obama, or was unimaginable to him—that he would become the target of the Washington press corps. That may be changing now, especially since the press corps feels as though it has been targeted by him.

But perhaps the media’s utility to him in the first term—acting as a blocking tackle against conservative and Republican criticisms and investigations—made his second-term woes inevitable. They did what they had to do to get him reelected. Now that Barack Obama never has to face the voters again, the American media can cleanse themselves of their implicit collusion with him by getting tough.

About the Author

John Podhoretz is editor of COMMENTARY.




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