Bill Clinton's Second Term Blues
By Bill Schneider/CNN
WASHINGTON (Nov. 15) -- For presidents who have gotten re-elected, their second terms have rarely been as successful as their first. Call it "the second-term blues." President Clinton is well aware of the problem.
"I'm very mindful of history's difficulties, and I'm going to try to beat them," he said in his press conference a few days after being re-elected.
Look at the record of second terms in this century.
After World War I, Woodrow Wilson could not convince the Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty and join the League of Nations. Wilson's presidency ended in failure, compounded by the president's tragic disability.
The greatest defeats of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency came during his second term. Congress refused to support FDR's plan to expand the Supreme Court. And Roosevelt failed to persuade voters to purge anti-New Deal Democrats in the 1938 mid-term elections.
After Harry Truman's astonishing victory in 1948, his popularity disintegrated as a result of the military stalemate in Korea, the firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and charges of corruption and Communist subversion in his Administration.
Dwight Eisenhower's second term was marred by periods of illness and a series of Cold War crises. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first space satellite in 1957, Americans became alarmed over what they saw as the nation's military and technological inferiority.
The Eisenhower Administration suffered another embarrassing setback in 1960 when the Soviets shot down a U-2 reconnaissance plane.
Lyndon Johnson's domestic achievements in his second term -- civil rights, Medicare, the war on poverty -- were overwhelmed by the growing crisis in the country over racial violence, student protest and the war in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon's second term? One word: Watergate.
Much of Ronald Reagan's second term was consumed by the Iran-Contra scandal. Reagan did recover his popularity, and he did have some achievements like tax reform. But the scandal was a painful diversion.
A recent study of second terms, "Trial and Triumph" by Alfred J. Zacher, which President Clinton has cited, concludes that "presidents who experienced diminished effectiveness or failure were those who lost control over Congress." That happened to Wilson, Roosevelt and Reagan during their second terms. It also happened to Truman and Johnson, especially when their public support collapsed as a result of unpopular wars abroad.
President Clinton intends to heed that lesson. "We understand the American people want us to work together with the Republicans and that we have to build a vital center," he's said.
The biggest reason for the second-term blues? Presidents who get too ambitious and overreach their mandate. Wilson, Johnson and even FDR all made that mistake and paid for it. President Clinton is aware of that problem, too.
"Sometimes a president thinks he has more of a mandate than he does and tries to do too much in the absence of co-operation," the president reflected.
Can Clinton avoid that mistake? After all, he didn't get much of a mandate on November 5th. No majority. No coattails. No Congress. And no big agenda. Just small-scale initiatives. That's where the president may run into trouble. He thinks he did run on a big agenda.
"We do have a big agenda. We have a driving agenda. We know what we have to do," he has said.
Uh-oh. That's where the trouble usually starts. Not to mention the possibility of another debilitating scandal. Remember Ross Perot's warning in the final week of the campaign? "We are headed toward a second Watergate with all this stuff going on and a constitutional crisis in 1997. Just remember where you heard it and put it in the bank," he said.
One thing always damages presidents in their second term: the president's party suffers a big loss in the mid-term elections, and that turns Congress against him. But in Clinton's case, it already happened -- in 1994. That could be an advantage for Clinton in his second term. He's already learned how to govern with a hostile Congress. His second-term blues came early, and he's acquired the skills he needs to cope with it if it happens again.
This story originally appeared on CNN's "Inside Politics."
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