Obama Has Broken the Second-Term Curse
Presidential scholars have a term to describe the typical experience of a chief executive who wins re-election to the White House. It’s called the “second-term curse.” There’s evidence for it. Midway through their second terms, George W. Bush suffered Hurricane Katrina and the Iraqi quagmire, Bill Clinton was impeached, Ronald Reagan was staggered by the Iran-contra scandal, and Richard Nixon was run out of town.
At the risk of jinxing our current president with one year left to go, he appears to have broken the curse.
Not everything has been smooth sailing. His party lost the Senate in the 2014 midterms. He failed to pass gun control despite a series of tragic shootings. His immigration executive actions are tied up in court. He has yet to arrest the threat of ISIS or resolve the underlying crisis of the Syrian civil war.
But Obama, unlike all of his second-term predecessors in the last 40 years, has not been knocked off course by scandal. Even if something truly awful happens in his last year, he has already been able to pocket several significant wins that will burnish his legacy.
In 2013, the president’s year began with the repeal of the Bush-era tax cuts for the top earners, creating a tax code the New York Times called the “most progressive since 1979.” Later that year, he stared down the Republicans’ attempt to defund Obamacare via government shutdown, permanently weakening his opponents’ bargaining leverage.
Fast-forward to this month: Obama used that leverage to secure a budget deal that includes permanent extensions of lower-income tax credits from the 2009 stimulus, support for Obamacare insurance plans, long-term tax incentives for renewable energy and funding to carry out the recent international climate agreement. Not only has the Republican Congress effectively relented on the climate deal, it previously admitted defeat on Obama’s other major foreign policy achievement: the Iran nuclear deal.
Even the president’s second-term bully pulpit showed some punch. Since he called for a higher minimum wage in his 2013 State of the Union address, 17 states have followed suit.
What did Obama do right that escaped past second-termers?
The most obvious lesson: Don’t have an enormous scandal. Iran-contra, Watergate, and the Lewinsky affair became all-consuming because of serious allegations that the president personally violated the law. Obama may have pushed the boundaries of what he can do via executive action, but those are constitutional questions that can, should, and are being adjudicated in court. He never came to close to being charged with a crime.
Obama also mastered the art of scandal management, while his Republican opponents lost credibility by transparently politicizing every investigation. Transgressions are inevitable at some level in any administration, and Obama was prepared to minimize fallout. He was quick to force out compromised underlings, including Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, and knew when to patiently work through a problem, such as with the initial HealthCare.gov website glitches.
In contrast, Republicans never learned how to calibrate their reactions. Instead of following the facts before drawing conclusions, they proclaim the worst—and then fail to prove their allegations. That’s why the pursuits of wrongdoing in Fast and Furious, Solyndra, the IRS audits and Benghazi have all fizzled.
Obama also avoided the trap of second-term hubris. Before Katrina walloped Louisiana, Bush’s political capital had already taken a hit when he overreached with his failed proposal to partially privatize Social Security.
Obama may have come up short with his 2013 gun control push (a heavy lift he would not have prioritized if not for the Sandy Hook school massacre) but his position wasn’t wildly out of step with the public and the effort didn’t severely damage his poll numbers. Any loss of political capital was recouped by winning the shutdown standoff later that year.
Although Obama didn’t succumb to overreach, he did not remain passive. He tapped a tireless secretary of state hungry to forge agreements. He pressed for as much he could with the Republican Congress, silencing doubters who said bipartisanship was futile. When the legislative branch would not oblige, he turned to the executive branch.
Love him or hate him, the man is not idle and his second term never was plagued by atrophy, let alone scandal. Future presidents, in either party, will do themselves a favor by following the Obama model.