Second-Term Blues

Second-Term Blues

by John C. Fortier

American presidents typically spend much of their first term trying to ensure a second term. Yet those "four more years!" are usually disappointing, replete with scandal, squabbling, plummeting approval, and few accomplishments. Thus far, George W. Bush's second term has largely followed that unfortunate pattern. In Second-Term Blues, John Fortier and Norman


American presidents typically spend much of their first term trying to ensure a second term. Yet those "four more years!" are usually disappointing, replete with scandal, squabbling, plummeting approval, and few accomplishments. Thus far, George W. Bush's second term has largely followed that unfortunate pattern. In Second-Term Blues, John Fortier and Norman Ornstein lead a stellar cast of political analysts illuminating the priorities, governing tendencies, and leadership style of a president trying to steady his ship in rocky seas. While the media obsess over who will be elected, they rarely ask how a candidate would govern if elected. For example, how would the president approach other political institutions? Would foreign policy stress caution and coordination, or will the U.S. "go it alone"? What would be the tone of public persona and rhetoric? This is the first in-depth analysis of Bush's second go-round from that perspective. The contributors include some of the shrewdest and best known observers of U.S. politics. David Sanger (New York Times) reveals how Bush's foreign policy, particularly on Iraq, defines and restricts his presidency. Dan Balz (Washington Post) dissects America's changing political mood and considers how the president's personal style fits into that milieu. Charles O. Jones, former president of the American Political Science Association, defines Bush's executive style: "Seemingly, where narrow-margin politics appears to call for sensitive mastery of Congress, President Bush employs an unrelenting executive style, among the most intense ever." In addition, Carla Robbins of the New York Times and Fred Greenstein of Princeton University make insightful contributions. This important book considers how all of this helps explain what we've seen coming out of Washington since 2001 and what it may portend for the future.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"As a worked aimed at alerting the media and the broader public to the issues of governing, Second-Term Blues succeeds admirably. Each of the chapters provides important historical background information pertaining to the George W. Bush presidency and each offers important and accessible insights into the performance of this should be useful reading for anyone interested in understanding [Bush's] complex and controversial presidency." —James M. Penning, Calvin College, American Review of Politics

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Second-Term Blues

How George W. Bush Has Governed

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2007 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-2884-9

Chapter One


John C. Fortier and Norman J. Ornstein

Second terms have not been good to American presidents. They often are characterized by hubris, burnout, a paucity of new or bold ideas and are plagued by scandal, party infighting, lack of legislative success, and loss of seats in the midterm election.

The Twenty-second Amendment ensures that a reelected president becomes a lame duck, contributing to the diminution of the office in the view of other Washington institutions. But even presidents in office before adoption of the Twenty-second Amendment found that their second terms did not measure up to their first.

George W. Bush has not broken the mold or established a new tradition. He has a bad case of the second-term blues; nearly all of the symptoms are present. This is especially ironic, as the newly reelected Bush, joined by many of his acolytes, argued that the precedents set by second-term presidents did not apply to him. At his second inaugural, he was riding high, pockets filled with political capital, ready to use his election victory to accomplish major reforms to Social Security and the tax code, poetic in his account of America's capacious role in the world.

Consider Bush's situation in relation to presidents, beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who were reelected to a second term (excluding Harry S. Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson, who were not).


Virtually all second-term presidents start with a healthy dose of hubris, believing that their reelection has proven their critics wrong, that their priorities were given a rocket boost, and, especially for modern ones, that they were left with immense freedom because they no longer have to worry about petty concerns such as getting reelected. FDR is a good example. With his large Democratic majorities, and at the start of an era of Democratic dominance, he aimed high. His second inaugural famously chronicled a nation one-third "ill housed, ill clad, and ill nourished." He sought to combat these problems, extend the New Deal, and wipe away the constraints on his program by the Old Guard. Most famously, he wanted to reshape the Supreme Court of nine old men. While eventually he did get to appoint new justices, in his second term, the Democratic Congress wanted nothing to do with his court packing plan and defeated it soundly. He also failed in his attempt to replace members of the independent Federal Trade Commission. Even more boldly, he tried to defeat conservative Democrats in the 1938 primaries in order to reshape his party but was wildly unsuccessful, which only emboldened them.


Fatigue is nearly universally felt in a second term. The presidency is a big job; added to those pressures is the marathon campaign for reelection. Not only is the president under stress, so is his staff. Most have gone four years working eighteen-hour days and now must hope for a second wind. Fatigue is a natural phenomenon. Burnout often weighs on the White House in making day-to-day decisions, but it also leads to turnover and shakeups. A second term often begins with a reshuffle, partly spurred by the desire to channel the energy generated by the election victory into accomplishments, but also because there are tired people seeking to move out, move up, or move to a new position. The pace of White House life makes it less stable after four years in office. Nearly every second-term president has replaced his chief of staff in the year or two after the election; Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did so at the beginning of their second terms, Bush and Dwight D. Eisenhower before the second midterm elections.

Lack of New Ideas

Second terms also are characterized by a paucity of new ideas. If presidents have big ideas, they usually raise them in the first term. Sometimes they succeed. If they fail to implement their grandiose notions in the first term, it is rare that conditions will change to make it more likely that they will succeed in the second. Since reelections are affirmations of the status quo, voters tend not to err on the side of revolutionary change, contributing to an even more unfavorable climate for big ideas. The one striking exception to this rule is Reagan, whose push for tax reform materialized in his second term and became one of his signature achievements. This occurred in part because he laid the political and substantive foundation late in his first term, made the ideas a true centerpiece of his reelection campaign, and built a plan on broad bipartisan support, drawing on the ideas of Democratic icons Bill Bradley, a senator from New Jersey, and Dick Gephardt, a representative from Missouri, and relying on staunch support from the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois.


Scandal haunts second-term presidents: Sherman Adams's vicuña coat, Watergate, Iran-contra, Monica Lewinsky. It is not simply that scandals occur in second terms because presidents have been around longer, or are more tempted, or simply succumb to the law of averages and find wrongdoing eventually uncovered. First-term scandals are not unknown. But, generally, scandal needs time to germinate, to be uncovered, and to be regarded by the press and public as timely or relevant. Many of the most famous second-term scandals began in the first term and were suppressed successfully by the White House, enabling the presidents to win reelection and avoid embarrassment. But the process of skillful suppression often contains the seed of destruction-the coverup becomes the scandal more than the original offense. Just as important, scandal in the executive branch is highlighted, prolonged, and exploited by congressional investigations. With the exception of FDR, every second-term president since the Civil War has faced a Congress with at least one chamber controlled by the other party. In a second term, let the investigations begin.

Party Infighting

Party unity suffers in second terms. Successful first-term presidents-for example, those who can win reelection-are able to secure the consistent support of their party in Congress, getting factions to muffle their differences, to be team players in order to get things done, and to win reelection. The president's partisans are made to see that their fate, and the fate of the president, is inextricably linked-if he succeeds, so will they; if he fails, so will they. At the same time, a successful president is able to keep his party's ideological base inside the tent by convincing the base to cut him some slack so he can win reelection.

A second-term president faces a very different dynamic. His supporters know that this may be their last chance to get what they want, so there often is impatience with presidents, which is heightened by unrealistic expectations. His partisans in Congress realize that his fate and theirs are now separated-they are up for reelection in the coming midterms, which are historically deeply damaging to the president's party, while he will not be up for election again. The willingness to get distance from the president-and to intensify that distance if he suffers public disapproval-increases geometrically. The ideological base, at the same time, calls in its chits now that the president no longer has an excuse to move away from its priorities or issues.

With these difficulties, it is not surprising that second-term presidents are less legislatively successful than first-termers. Of course, legislation does get passed; Congress has its own agenda to work on, and there have been notable second-term breakthroughs such as the 1986 tax reform act for Reagan mentioned earlier. But, generally, a second-term president is less legislatively successful and, more important, less in charge of the legislative agenda.

Salvation Abroad

Presidents experience a honeymoon at the start of their first term, when there is at least a greater prospect for party unity and often less vociferous opposition. There is also a sense of urgency for a president to get some things accomplished that he can campaign on for reelection. But a second-term president has diminished command of the domestic legislative agenda. And, for the most part, presidents realize their predicament and try to seal their legacy with foreign policy accomplishments. They do this because presidents feel more comfortable on the world stage and know they can act in foreign policy more independently of Congress, the news media, and other Washington forces. Reagan and Clinton were more active and more lauded in foreign policy in their second terms. And foreign policy achievements often proceed on a separate track from the president's troubles at home. In 1987 alone, Reagan dealt with a Senate in Democratic hands, faced Iran-contra investigations by both the Tower Commission and Congress, and fired his chief of staff. But he also famously called on Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in Berlin and negotiated a historic arms control agreement with the Soviets. Clinton's heavy involvement in the Northern Ireland and Middle East peace initiatives, military action in the Balkans, Iraq, and Somalia were juxtaposed with battles with the Republican Congress and the Lewinsky scandal.

Midterm Losses

Finally, a second-term president nearly always faces bad news in the midterm election. For more than 150 years, until 1998, no second-term president's party had gained seats in either the House or Senate at the midterm election. Clinton broke this string in 1998 when Democrats picked up five House seats; the Senate numbers did not change. But there were two peculiar circumstances for Clinton. His party had lost so badly in his first midterm election that there was less to lose, and the impeachment and trial of the president rallied what might otherwise have been a divided Democratic Party.

In general, a loss in the second midterm election has several disheartening qualities for a president. It means a smaller majority, or, in many cases, the loss of a majority in Congress. And bad news with only two years left in a second term is dispiriting to the president's party. The rosy prospects for the future that marked the beginning of the first term seem like a distant memory for a lame duck president with only two years to go and faced with a less friendly Congress. Scandals are more likely to be investigated by Congress if the opposing party takes control, and the sense of waiting out a president grows. Finally, as political scientist Charles O. Jones has pointed out, midterm elections are usually (although not always fairly) viewed as a referendum on the president, and if the election does not go the president's way, the dominant story in the news is defeat of the president with only two years to go.

Bush: Hubris

Bush's second term already has exhibited most of these distinctions. While partisans may disagree about the use of the term "hubris," clearly Bush has been a confident president, and his confidence about the prospects for his second term far exceeded the reality. In his first term, Bush maintained the reputation of being a strong leader, which was well deserved for his actions under fire in the aftermath of 9/11. But as Bush's popularity has waned, Congress, the news media, and other institutions have been more vocal in arguing that the Bush White House was too strong a defender of executive powers and did not consult Congress on important matters. The perception of strength of leadership also waned because the president was not decisive in responding to Hurricane Katrina and did not dominate the legislative and policy agenda in Washington as he had in his first term.

Bush: Burnout

The Bush team also has faced the burnout issue. Speculation arose that administration lapses over the federal response to Katrina were exacerbated by an exhausted White House, especially including Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who had a longer tenure than nearly all of his predecessors, and Karl Rove, who had fulltime portfolios as chief political adviser and deputy chief of staff for domestic policy. A little over a year into his second term, Bush embarked on the first real White House shakeup. Before that, major figures had left the White House-Karen Hughes for Texas, and Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzales, and Margaret Spellings to head executive departments-but no major figure had joined the circle of close Bush advisers. The replacement of Card with Joshua B. Bolten seemed at first a mere reshuffling of chairs. But the subsequent changes involving a new communications director, a new Office of Management and Budget director to replace Bolten, a new Treasury secretary, the reassignment of Rove to focus exclusively on political matters, in particular the 2006 midterm elections, and several other changes made this a real shakeup.

Bush had intended his second term to be marked by two big domestic agenda ideas, but not new ideas: Social Security reform and tax reform. Bush had made these issues part of his campaign agenda in 2000, but, once elected, it became clear that these were tough issues to tackle, particularly Social Security. So they were put off until after the reelection. Bush surprised Washington pundits by being able to campaign successfully on allocating a portion of Social Security payroll taxes to private accounts. Social Security was once called the "third rail" of politics: touch it and you were dead.

But while he was twice able to campaign on the issue, Social Security reform was not ready for congressional action. Unlike the start of his first term as Texas governor or his presidential start in 2001, when new key issues moved from the campaign immediately into the legislative process, Social Security reform had been studied and talked about until 2005. But it still did not have enough of a constituency on Capitol Hill, even among Republicans. So the issue sat while Bush tried to go directly to the country with his message. But it never gained the legislative traction that moved the issues he emphasized in his first term.

Bush: Scandal

In Bush's second term, scandal was also in the air in Washington. As Republicans controlled the presidency and Congress, it is not surprising that the lion's share of scandals was in their camp. Most notable were congressional scandals, and the one involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff was the most significant. Abramoff connections led to the resignation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the conviction of GOP congressman Bob Ney of Ohio.

In addition, there was the case of Republican congressman Duke Cunningham of California, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, among other charges. His acceptance of favors and maintaining a cozy relationship with lobbyists who dealt with military construction led the FBI to investigate other members of Congress. Finally, the scandal involving congressman Mark Foley of Florida, while more of a congressional matter, hit Bush's Republican colleagues in the House hard because it added to other doubts voters had about Republicans and surfaced only about a month before election day.

The Abramoff scandal also touched on the Bush administration, especially in the case of the executive director of the General Services Administraton, David Safavian, who was convicted of having received favors from Abramoff, his former boss, and having provided insider information on contracts that might have been helpful to the former lobbyist.

But the scandal that hit the White House hardest was the Joseph Wilson/Valerie Plame affair pursued by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, which raised questions beyond the allegations of improper release of classified information. Critics have asked whether this is an example of an administration trying to silence its critics on the war in Iraq. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was indicted. The scandal also threatened to implicate Rove, the president's closest political adviser, although he was not ultimately targeted by the prosecutor.

Bush: Unity

Republican Party unity in the Bush administration has swung wildly from the Dr. Jekyll-like reflexive loyalty of the first term to the Mr. Hyde-like declared congressional independence from the White House in the second term. Few who studied the Bush administration would have predicted that congressional Republicans with such a small majority would be able to hold together as regularly as they did in Bush's first four years. The unity was extraordinary. For Republicans to win on a party line vote in the House of Representatives in 2001, they could only afford five defectors from their ranks. The Senate began with a 50-50 tie, broken by the vice president, but soon turned to a one-seat Democratic majority when Senator Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) left the Republican Party. In all of the forty years that Democrats controlled the House, they never had a working majority as slim as the 2001-02 Republican Congress.


Excerpted from Second-Term Blues Copyright © 2007 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John C. Fortier is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for The Hill. He is the author of Absentee Voting and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils (AEI, 2006). Norman J.Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He also serves as an election analyst for CBS News and writes a weekly column,"Congress Inside Out," for Roll Call.

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