Five myths about two-term presidents

Harvard University law professor Kenneth W. Mack tackles popular misunderstandings about presidents who get rehired.

When President Obama beat Mitt Romney on Tuesday to win a second term in the White House, he joined the elite club of rehired commanders in chief that includes Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. But also part of this club are less-well-regarded presidents such as Ulysses S. Grant, Calvin Coolidge and George W. Bush. Let’s examine some popular misconceptions about two-term presidents to learn what a second chance has meant for their places in history.

1. Election to a second term is a mandate.

Reelection is usually a validation of a president’s popularity and political skill, as well as a rejection of what was proposed by the losing candidate. Reading it as an endorsement of an ambitious political agenda is a trickier proposition.

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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.”

4. Presidents get second terms only if the economy is good.

During the 2012 election, commentators tied the economy to Obama’s reelection prospects. But those who study the relationship between the economy and reelection have struggled to come to a consensus on the exact link between economic performance and electoral success. An ailing economy can be one obstacle among many for an incumbent to overcome.

FDR, for example, easily won reelection in 1936 on the strength of his Second New Deal, even though the nation had not recovered from the Great Depression. If the country was not where it needed to be, at least Roosevelt had a populist program for improving the economic lives of ordinary Americans. His opponent, the uncharismatic Alf Landon, did not.

Many commentators concede that Roosevelt was a special case. The problem, in terms of making comparisons, is that there aren’t many post-FDR presidents who have sought reelection amid a sufficiently sluggish economy. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, the only two examples of presidents supposedly undone by the economy since Herbert Hoover, could chalk their losses up to a host of factors: a lack of charisma, third-party or primary challengers, a focused opponent, or embarrassments such as the Iran hostage crisis. Of course, Obama defeated Romney with the unemployment rate near 8 percent.

5. A president’s legacy is defined by what happens in a second term.

Some presidents, such as Lincoln, marked early achievements that ensured their place in history. Almost 150 years ago, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation after less than two years in office, saying, “If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act.” Theodore Roosevelt, initially seen as an impulsive leader, was later validated for his work as a “trustbuster” in the Progressive Era.

In some cases, a president’s legacy can be a product of plain good — or bad — luck. Some of our most important leaders, from Andrew Jackson to Lincoln to FDR to Reagan, happened to serve just as voter loyalties were being realigned in ways that strengthened their political coalitions. Political scientist Stephen Skowronek argues that presidents who serve during such periods of realignment have unique opportunities to wield power and cement their legacies — which may bode well for Obama.

outlook@washpost.com

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