Three 20th-century presidents elected to second terms by overwhelming margins — FDR, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — were ultimately weakened by political overreaching. The escalation of the war in Vietnam undid Johnson, while FDR’s Supreme Court-packing plan and unsuccessful attempt to unseat conservative Democrats in the 1938 elections showed weakened political prowess.
Nixon undermined his reputation with ruthless tactics in the 1972 election to make up for the divided electoral result of 1968. He got what he wanted, winning a near-historic share of the vote after calling on a “silent majority” of Americans disaffected with liberalism. But did he receive a mandate for his brand of combative, sometimes lawless politics? No — the Watergate scandal destroyed his presidency.
2. A president has more freedom in a second term.
It is a common assumption that a second-term president, liberated from worries about reelection, can pursue bold objectives that would have been unachievable during a first term. But history shows that presidents can lose steam if they aren’t careful.
The alliances that brought a president to office may show underlying weaknesses, as when the reaction to the 1965 Watts riots exposed fissures in Johnson’s civil rights coalition. Trusted advisers may leave the White House for jobs elsewhere in the government or the private sector, as James Baker did during Reagan’s second term.
Reagan’s last term did include bipartisan successes such as tax reform and breakthroughs with the Soviet Union. But these were undermined by the drift and bad decision-making that led to the Iran-Contra scandal.
Policies that originated in the first term can also bear bitter fruit in the second, as when Bush’s decision to invade Iraq turned sour and his endorsement of economic deregulation — which stretched back to the Clinton years — helped bring on a financial crisis and a recession.
3. The movement for presidential term limits emerged only after Roosevelt was elected four times.
The 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, set the formal two-term limit. But Americans have sought presidential term limits since the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when the idea of one seven-year term was proposed but rejected.
Some believe that George Washington retired after his second term to set a precedent that would prevent a president from serving for life. But Washington’s decision was prompted by his lack of enthusiasm for continuing in office. It was Thomas Jefferson who helped cement the custom, citing a need to establish a limit when he chose not to stand for office again at the conclusion of his second term. Several decades later, in 1844, the Whig Party platform called for “a single term for the presidency.”