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Terms Of No Endearment

June 2024
6min read

Bill Clinton is having a rocky second term. But so has almost every President who made it back into office.

The uproar that erupted only a few weeks after President Clinton’s 1997 inauguration when news
of his personal involvement in Democratic fundraising activities came to light made it clear that his second term was off to a bumpy start. That’s not a novelty for Clinton, whose first term can hardly be described as carefree. But from a broader historical point of view, it’s yet another case of a familiar malady. For a variety of reasons (not limited to party politics) two-term Presidents have very little time to enjoy the compliment of re-election before the tide turns against them. Here is a bare-bones record of how quickly popular esteem can fade.

We start with Washington himself. Our first President, quite unlike our latest, was universally admired for most of his first four years in office, but it was a different tale the second time around, from 1793 through March 1797. A resolute nonpartisan critic of “the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” he watched helplessly as political warfare between followers of his two chief advisers, Hamilton and Jefferson, became white-hot. Like it or not, he became identified with Hamilton’s Federalists. Moreover, though he advocated strict neutrality in foreign affairs, he was buffeted between a warring revolutionary France and Tory Britain, both of them freely violating American rights and interests and each with passionate supporters in the United States. When he threw his weight behind the controversial (it was said to be too favorable to London) Jay Treaty with the British, he created a tempest of opposition. By 1795 his immunity to criticism was gone. A typical (Jeffersonian) Republican newspaper attack said he showed “the seclusion of a monk and the supercilious distance of a tyrant,” and he was accused of over-drawing his salary. Small wonder that he disdained a third term, with its threat of being further “buffeted in the public prints.”

Fourteen men after Washington were twice elected to full terms, and for the most part they fared no better. Let’s omit Lincoln and McKinley, murdered before their second administrations were well under way, and the three Vice Presidents (TR, Truman, and LBJ) who succeeded “accidentally” but won the ensuing election on their own, though surely the latter two, stuck with unpopular wars, fit the pattern of a slide from the heights of victory to the catacombs of unpopularity.

Jefferson’s initial administration, though controversial, was highlighted by the triumph of the Louisiana Purchase. But in 1803 the wars of Napoleon, temporarily stilled during the first term, re-escalated to full fury, and the Emperor grabbed neutral vessels headed for enemy ports while the Royal Navy snatched from the decks of Yankee vessels thousands of sailors alleged to be deserters from its own ranks. Jefferson’s answer was to get Congress to pass the Embargo Act, hoping that London and Paris would be coerced into respect for U.S. neutral rights when cut off from American exports. Instead, the policy brought a massive depression to America’s mercantile economy. As he left office, Jefferson, lashed by hostility, had to permit the repeal of the embargo.

Poor James Madison inherited this disaster and spent most of his second term in a war with Great Britain that he did not want, that New England hated, and for which the whole country was unprepared. In August of 1814 he suffered what surely has to be the ultimate presidential humiliation: he and the government fled to the Virginia country side and hid for three days while a British raiding force torched Washington’s public buildings.

It was lucky for Madison and the Republicans that although the United States lost the war on the battlefields, it won a draw at the peace table, the Federalist party fell apart, and westward expansion boosted the economy and brought about the celebrated Era of Good Feelings. President number five, James Monroe, therefore had relatively smooth sailing in his first term, 1817–21, and also in his second, which he won by getting every electoral vote but one.

Andrew Jackson, the next two-term President, was confronted immediately after re-election in 1832 with the secession threat of South Carolina’s nullifiers. That crisis was settled only two weeks before inauguration day 1833 with a compromise, but Old Hickory’s
“war” on the Bank of the United States continued to rage. (See the July/August 1997 issue.) In the fall of 1833 Jackson began the process of pulling the funds of the federal government from the Bank. The following March a hostile Senate, by a 26–20 vote, formally censured him for that act, the only such rebuke it ever flung in a Chief Executive’s face. Jackson, however, was not only persistent but lucky, and he had the last laugh. His supporters in the next Senate had enough votes to get the resolution expunged from the record during his final weeks in office in the winter of 1837. He left in time to escape blame when, in May of 1837, the country plunged into a major panic and depression.

When Ulysses S. Grant was elected in 1868, he was a national idol and his first term provided him with such undemanding days that he began to gain weight (he eventually left the White House thirty or forty pounds heavier than on his entrance). But his second one, following a walkaway victory of 286 electoral votes to 66, was marked by the headlined exposure of one scandal after another involving his friends and appointees. Justly or not, Grant’s public image thereafter remained that of a fine general and a terrible President.

Grover Cleveland is unique among Chief Executives in winning one election, losing the next, and then regaining the prize on a third try in 1892. The curse, however, operated even in a nonconsecutive second term. A stock market crash in May of 1893 set off the worst depression of the century. Heavy unemployment, major strikes, agricultural distress, and political revolt (not to mention a secret operation for cancer of the mouth) were the burden of Cleveland’s days. His essentially conservative responses to these crises alienated his fellow Democrats in the South and West and left him repudiated by the party in 1896.

The next Democrat to be elected President was Woodrow Wilson, whose second term was a dizzy up-and-down ride. His re-election was by a very small margin in the electoral college, decided at the last moment by victory in California. Five months later, however, he was the globally acclaimed war leader of the 1917-18 crusade to make the world safe for democracy. Then, in 1919, the peacemakers of Versailles gutted his plans for a “peace without victory,” leaving him only the League of Nations as the remnant of his vision. However, the U.S. Senate balked at the final treaty with the League, and during Wilson’s losing battle for ratification a stroke paralyzed him. He was the tragic shell of a leader in his final days.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unduplicated four election victories obscure the negative realities of his second term. After winning by a landslide—forty-six states to two—in 1936, he ran into a string of stunning setbacks. His plan to “pack” the Supreme Court in his favor by appointing extra justices was roundly beaten in 1937, and a recession sent unemployment figures back toward 1933 levels, while on Capitol Hill opponents slashed New Deal programs and budgets. The Republicans made big gains in the fall elections. Except for the outbreak of war in 1939, there would have been no question of a third term, let alone a fourth. In a bizarre way, Hitler’s timetable of conquest led to the continuation in office of his most dangerous enemy.

Considering the facts, it’s a bit surprising that Presidents ever choose to seek re-election.

As we come to look at the last forty years, nostalgia for the prosperous fifties obscures the rocky and controversial road that Eisenhower traveled in his second term. In 1957 a very reluctant Ike had to send troops to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision. He likewise had to contend with the Soviets’ launching of Sputnik and their temporary lead in the space race, especially when America’s first satellite launch was a public flop. In 1958 there was a major recession, resulting in the election of a Democratic Congress. In 1959 Castro came to power in Cuba. In 1960 plans for a peacemaking summit conference in Paris and an Eisenhower visit to the Soviet Union collapsed when our “secret” U-2 spy plane was shot down over the U.S.S.R. and the President was embarrassed by having to recant an official denial.

Comment is superfluous on the second terms of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. When you say “Watergate” and “Iran-contra,” you have said enough.

Is there any grand design visible in all this? I can’t easily find a one-size-fits-all explanation for the phenomenon (or anything else in history for that matter). Personally I would say that FDR, Nixon, and Reagan overreached themselves, that Wilson suffered the inevitable popular reaction to the crusading spirit of 1917–18, that Madison, Cleveland, and Eisenhower were simply unlucky in the timing of events, and that in the cases of Jefferson and Grant, policies and practices established in the first term caught up with them in the second. But this, in a sense, is true of all of them, and so is the rather loose statement that electorates are notoriously fickle.

Whatever the case, considering the facts, it’s a bit surprising that incumbent first-term Presidents choose, as most of them do, to seek re-election. The reason usually given is their urge to “finish the job” that their administrations have begun. I presume that in addition, the habit of ambition is hard to break. Jefferson once (before his own White House tenure) called the Presidency “splendid misery.” But most holders of the office seem willing, as he was, to risk another four years of misery in return for the splendor.

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