The “second term curse”? It’s not so bad.

Whether you liked it or hated it, there's no denying that President Obama laid out an ambitious second-term agenda during his inaugural address Monday.

The Fix has already pointed out that the president doesn't really have four years to accomplish all of his goals; by the time the 2014 midterm elections heat up his political power will be significantly diminished. The president's party tends to lose seats in those elections, leading to an emboldened opposition and insecure allies.

It's for those reasons that many people believe second terms are cursed. Iran-Contra happened during Ronald Reagan's second term. The Monica Lewinsky scandal marred Bill Clinton's second term. And George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina overshadowed what he had hoped to do in his second four years.


George W. Bush/ REUTERS

All true. But also an incomplete reading of second terms. In fact, plenty of important policy has been made in second terms -- even in the final two years of second terms.

Take George W. Bush, for example. He struggled to accomplish major second term goals like Social Security reform, and Katrina badly damaged his standing with the American public.

But in matters of foreign policy, Bush implemented the Iraq surge, and with it General David Petraeus' counterinsurgency policy, although "he didn't get any political benefit from it," says John Fortier, co-author of a book on Bush's second term.

Crisis can also grease the wheels. Toward the end of his presidency, Bush presided over the bipartisan Wall Street bailout. He also used administrative rulemaking to make consumer lawsuits more difficult. And he signed a hugely influential, controversial bill making it harder to file for bankruptcy.

Bill Clinton's second term was overshadowed by the Lewinksy scandal, true. But he intervened in Kosovo through executive order and helped broker peace in Northern Ireland. He signed the first budget surplus in almost 30 years. Using the obscure Antiquities Act to bypass Congress, Clinton preserved 9 million acres of wilderness from logging and energy exploration. He created the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. He boosted education spending, while giving up on national testing standards. He helped set up a global AIDS trust fund.

Much of Ronald Reagan's second term was consumed by the arms-for-hostages affair and questions about his role. But he still passed bipartisan tax reform in 1986. He shifted towards diplomacy with the Soviet Union, giving more control to Secretary of State George Shultz and signing the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Treaty.

Even Richard Nixon, who resigned early in his second term over Watergate, still found time to end American involvement in Vietnam.

Dwight D. Eisenhower lost his chief of staff over a fur coat, saw a spy plane shot down and a subsequent summit with the Soviets scuttled, and after the launch of Sputnik was accused of allowing a "missile gap." But he also signed the the Civil Rights Act of 1957; while very limited, it was the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. (He strengthened it a bit with the Civil Rights Act of 1960.) He sent troops to Little Rock to enforce school desegregation. He brought Alaska and Hawaii into the Union.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second term was dominated by his polarizing attempt to pack the Supreme Court with new, younger justices. But even as that plan failed, the Supreme Court upheld the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, securing key aspects of the New Deal. But his second term would likely be a better-remembered failure if FDR hadn't had five more years in office, dominated by World War II.

Of course, some of these presidents fared better than others in their second term (and their first terms for that matter). Still, history suggests President Obama  will find accomplishments to tout in his second term -- even if they may not be the priorities he promised to tackle this week.

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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Sean Sullivan | January 23, 2013