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Obama's second-term curse? Not so fast

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Tue May 14, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: Media saying Obama is running into the "second-term curse"
  • He says it's true Obama's running into trouble, but pundits' rush to judgment premature
  • Second-termers (see Reagan, Bush, Clinton) have successes along with stumbles, he says
  • Kurtz: Obama does face wind down of sway; this could affect his impact more than errors

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."

(CNN) -- The media verdict is in: Barack Obama is cursed.

Less than four months after taking the oath of office for the second time, he is seen as falling prey to some mysterious witchcraft that casts a fatal spell on re-elected presidents.

"Will Obama suffer the 'second-term curse'?" asks the Washington Post.

"President Obama stares down the second-term curse," says Politico. And such stories ricocheted onto NBC's "Today" show, on which, we learned, "some observers" are questioning whether "Mr. Obama is falling victim to the second-term curse."

One can almost conjure up a bubbling cauldron of black smoke with a wand-wielding wizard laughing diabolically.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Now, there's no question that second-term presidents often stumble or run out of gas. But the punditry suggests a one-size-fits-all scenario that isn't borne out by history. What's more, there's a rush-to-judgment air to some of these pronouncements that implies his second term is on the verge of failure, with more than 3 1/2 years to go.

It isn't hard to build the case that the president finds himself in a ditch. The almost offhanded disclosure that the IRS was targeting conservative and tea party groups for reviews of their tax-exempt status, and the revelation that a top agency official knew about this two years ago, is an outrage that carries disturbing echoes of Richard Nixon. (Now there's a guy whose second term didn't turn out too well.)

The Benghazi debacle (which of course happened in Obama's first term) finally gained traction after ABC News reported that the administration's misleading talking points after the fatal attack had been scrubbed to remove references to a group affiliated with al-Qaeda and CIA warnings about terrorism.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been making Obama's life miserable, defeating a modest measure on background checks for guns, slow-walking immigration legislation and refusing to vote for some Cabinet nominees.

IRS admits it targeted tea party groups
Issa: Obama couldn't be more inaccurate
Bush pushes for immigration reform

Oh, and the economy isn't doing that well either.

But does that amount to a jinxed second term, or the same kind of partisan standoff that has marked Obama's years in office? A look back at recent second-termers makes clear that every set of problems is inherently different.

George W. Bush vowed to spend his political capital after winning in 2004, but a move to privatize Social Security quickly collapsed. The sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina sealed an image of the administration as incompetent, against the backdrop of a bloody Iraq war. And he left office amid the financial crisis of 2008.

Bill Clinton's second term blew up when the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted and he got himself impeached. But less remembered is the pre-scandal year of 1997, when the president and Newt Gingrich's Republicans hammered out an agreement to balance the budget for the first time in three decades. It was sex and lies that proved Clinton's undoing, although his popularity remained high when he left office.

In similar fashion, Ronald Reagan's second term ran aground when the Iran-Contra scandal exploded in late 1986. What has been overshadowed is the sweeping legislation on tax reform and overhauling immigration that he passed earlier in the year. And Reagan's personal approval rating was sufficiently intact that he was able to hand over the office to his vice president.

As for Obama, smart journalists are careful not to be definitive when writing their trend pieces. Politico says the recent setbacks "have left the president feeling deeply frustrated, even angry — and eager to find a way to recapture the offensive." The Washington Post piece describes his mounting woes as "diversions working against a president who is keenly aware of how little time he has left to achieve big things."

This brings us to the thing that every second-term president since FDR has indeed faced: a ticking clock.

A re-elected commander-in-chief is a lame duck whose ability to reward and punish inevitably diminishes as his departure date approaches. And that, rather than any sinister voodoo, may be Obama's biggest problem as he tries to dig his way out of this ditch.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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