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  • A Tradition of Troubled Second Terms

    By David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 20, 1997; Page E03

    Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, taking the oath for the second time. The Washington Post
    On Inauguration Day, any president is entitled to be hopeful. But history says Bill Clinton may be in for a rough ride.

    Clinton is the sixth president of the postwar era to win election to the White House while already occupying the Oval Office. The predecessors include two Democrats, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, who were elected once after succeeding presidents who died in office, and three Republicans, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who, like Clinton, won back-to-back campaigns.

    All of them had troubled second terms. Four of the five saw their administrations marred by major scandals. Nixon was forced to resign, while Truman and Johnson were so weakened by events they thought it best not to seek another term. Every one of the quintet saw the opposition party gain strength during his final period in office.

    The president who begins his second term today has said that he has studied the rather dismal record of previous second-termers and has drawn the appropriate lessons. In a news conference three days after his reelection, Clinton said that his reading led him to conclude that, aside from external events intruding on their game plans, his predecessors' problems could be traced either to hubris or entropy.

    "Sometimes a president thinks he has more of a mandate than he does and tries to do too much . . . [and] sometimes a president essentially just runs out of steam."

    He hoped to avoid those perils, he said, by cooperating with Congress "to build a vital center" and by enlisting "good, energetic people" to carry out the specific promises he made in his second campaign.

    "I'm very mindful of history's difficulties," he concluded, "and I'm going to try to beat them."

    In the Inauguration Day spirit, even his political opponents are prepared to hope the president's scholarship has yielded answers that will make his next four years productive.

    The 'Cyclical' Presidency
    But it is no accident that the course of presidential history generally runs downhill as presidents continue in office.

    Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written about the "very cyclical" course of most presidencies, said in an interview that "Clinton seems to understand some of the things" that caused his predecessors' problems. "He knows his best chance of doing anything will be in this fifth year, so he has emphasized personal loyalty and knowledge of the area" in assembling his second-term team. "He's promoted people from within, because he knows he can't afford time for on-the-job training."

    "But second terms are like hourglasses," Hess said, "and the sands run out. . . . Not one of the postwar presidents did better in their second terms than in their first. The slope is always downward."

    The tendency manifests itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes a leader with a seemingly sure touch for foreign policy turns ham-handed. Eisenhower was elected in part because of the unpopularity of the Korean War, and promptly found a way to end it. But his second term ended with the embarrassment of the U-2 spy plane incident and a chill in U.S.-Soviet relations.

    Truman with Vice President Alben Barkley on Inauguration Day, 1949. AP
    Sometimes it is the economy that goes wrong. The unpopularity of the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War undermined Truman's and Johnson's popularity. But both men also paid a price for the inflation triggered by the costs of those military commitments.

    Sometimes the best evidence of decline can be found in the dearth of major legislation. In his first nine months in office, Reagan pushed through a major tax reduction and saw the whole federal budget recast to reflect his call for greater defense spending. He also saw decades of domestic legislation revised in a single landmark "reconciliation" bill. By contrast, in his final four years, while notable changes were made in welfare, immigration and trade laws, the only enduring landmark piece of legislation was the 1986 tax reform bill — a measure that bore the imprint of congressional Democrats at least as much as that of the White House.

    Long List of Scandals
    The most frequent of the second-term problems is the proliferation of scandals. Watergate is only the most headlined on a list that begins with Harry Vaughn and the Deep Freeze story in Truman's time, Sherman Adams and the vicuna coat in Eisenhower's, and concludes, for now, with Reagan's Iran-contra affair. Clinton's Whitewater and campaign finance stories may add to the roster.

    Whatever the particular symptom of second-term disease, the effect is usually detrimental to the president's party. Republicans capitalized on the circumstances surrounding Truman's and Johnson's final years; Democrats, on the events that concluded Eisenhower's and Nixon's tenure. Of the five who preceded Clinton in taking the presidential oath a second time, only Reagan enjoyed the experience of seeing a successor of his own party sworn in.

    On the face of it, Clinton's situation is quite different from those of the other Democrats in this group. In 1948 and 1964, Truman and Johnson were running for the presidency for the first time. Both achieved tremendous momentum from their election victories — Truman because he upset the odds when he defeated Thomas E. Dewey and Johnson because he won a huge landslide over Barry Goldwater. Both began what would turn out to be their final terms with friendly majorities in Congress, where both of them had plentiful allies from their own prior service on Capitol Hill. And yet things turned against them with remarkable speed.

    Only four months after reveling in the praise that greeted his inaugural address, Truman was rocked by the suicide of James Forrestal, who had been his secretary of defense. Soon China fell to the communists, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, and the Cold War and the McCarthyite search for domestic conspirators intensified. In 1950, fighting broke out in Korea, U.S. troops were committed, and the unpopular war fed midterm election losses to the GOP. In 1951, after the challenge to presidential authority that led to Truman's dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the president's approval rating fell to an all-time low of 26 percent and there was talk of impeachment. In 1952, with stalemate in Korea, fresh scandals in the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies, and a defeat at the hands of Sen. Estes Kefauver in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Truman announced on March 29 he would step down at the end of his term. The Republicans swept the election.

    For Lyndon Johnson, the turnabout was even more abrupt and total. The 1965 session of Congress with Democratic majorities of more than 2-to-1 created by his electoral landslide saw Johnson sign a raft of historic legislation: Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, federal aid to public education, landmark immigration, housing, arts, environmental, auto safety and parks bills. But 1965 and 1966 also marked a continued escalation of fighting in Vietnam and the first signs of an inflation that was to gain dangerous momentum. The midterm elections brought huge Republican gains. The next year there were growing demonstrations against the war. In March 1968, following an unexpectedly strong showing by opposition candidate Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Johnson announced he was retiring. That November, Richard Nixon won the presidency.

    Parallels With GOP
    Nixon and Eisenhower may provide closer parallels for Clinton than either of these two Democrats. Neither of the Republicans provided coattails for their party's congressional candidates in their reelection campaigns, and both of them faced a Congress controlled by the opposition party.

    That became a critically important factor for Nixon. The Watergate break-in occurred almost five months before Election Day 1972, but the White House was able to deflect the accumulating evidence of serious wrongdoing during the campaign. Once Nixon's second inauguration was past, however, Democrats in control of congressional investigating committees began applying heat to a president whose campaign tactics they deeply resented. By the summer of the first year of his second term, a special Senate investigating committee headed by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) was putting one White House aide after another under oath — and the carefully laid defenses around the president were crumbling. A year later, 19 months into his second term, Nixon was forced to resign.

    During the 1996 campaign, with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr busily gathering information on the Whitewater financial dealings in Arkansas and the mysteries surrounding the firing of the White House travel office aides and the presence of some 900 FBI background files in the White House, a new trail of revelations about illegal contributions to the Democratic campaign and presidential favors to big givers began to unroll.

    Only Reform Party candidate Ross Perot was bold or rash enough to say that "we are headed toward a second Watergate . . . and a constitutional crisis in 1997." But it did not enhance public confidence about Clinton's prospects when all three of the White House lawyers who had been handling congressional and special counsel inquiries on these matters decided to leave their jobs within weeks after Election Day. Much as their Democratic counterparts did 24 years ago when they hired young lawyers like Hillary Rodham to dig into the emerging White House scandals, today congressional Republicans are beefing up their staffs for planned investigations of the Clinton White House and reelection campaign.

    Whether all these investigations will produce anything like the cataclysm of Nixon's second term is conjectural. A better parallel may lie in comparing Clinton to Eisenhower.

    Clinton has assets Ike did not. He is 16 years younger than the general was at the start of his second term, 40 years ago, and has no apparent health problems anywhere near as serious as the heart attack or ileitis Eisenhower suffered in his first term or the stroke that Ike endured in his final four years in office. On the other hand, Eisenhower was a national hero, a man above party who had won two personal landslide endorsements from the American people, the second with 58 percent of the popular vote. Clinton, by contrast, has been a plurality winner without majority endorsement in both his presidential campaigns, and millions of Americans find his character as suspect as Eisenhower's was trusted.

    However, while four decades have passed, many of the issues that tripped up Eisenhower in his second term are still around. Throughout his tenure, he battled against congressional and public hostility to U.S. involvement in international affairs, particularly when it took the form of foreign aid. Today, if anything, the president's task in gaining public and congressional support for U.S. foreign policy is even more difficult. Congress refused to endorse Clinton's troop deployment to Haiti and most members voted against sending U.S. forces into Bosnia. The lawmakers have sliced the State Department and international agency budgets.

    Divisive Debates
    Eisenhower found himself embroiled in the national conflict over race and civil rights. A voting rights bill he championed was filibustered in the Senate. When one of Clinton's predecessors as governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, refused a court order to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School, Ike reluctantly had to send troops.

    Clinton won't face that situation, but his administration is embroiled in a deeply divisive national debate over affirmative action, a subject on which attitudes appear even more hardened nationally than they were on school desegregation.

    Barely a month after Little Rock, the Soviet Union launched the first successful Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, and the space race began with the United States trailing its main adversary badly. "After Little Rock and Sputnik," biographer Stephen E. Ambrose wrote, "the differences were over big matters, civil rights and national defense, as complacency and consensus disappeared."

    After the stroke he suffered in the autumn of 1957, Eisenhower continued to struggle, without much success, for new arms agreements that would lower the defense bill and make a balanced budget possible. But other difficulties piled up. A scandal forced the resignation of White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams. Radical Arab forces caused trouble in the Middle East, forcing a U.S. military intervention in Lebanon. The midterm elections of 1958 produced a GOP rout and brought in a new crop of liberal Democratic senators who were to dominate the legislative process for decades.

    The next year, Fidel Castro took power after a revolution in Cuba. In 1960, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured. After baiting Eisenhower into denying the incident, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev put the plane and pilot on display and Ike was humiliatingly forced to acknowledge his deception. Khrushchev canceled plans for further disarmament talks, blighting Eisenhower's hopes for a deal that would bolster peace prospects and allow defense spending reductions.

    With the economy in a slump and Richard Nixon a man about whom he had grave personal doubts leading the Republican ticket, Eisenhower ended his second term by watching John F. Kennedy, for whom he had even less use, win the right of succession. On the morning after the election, Ambrose writes, the retiring president's secretary, Ann Whitman, recalled Eisenhower's telling her "this was a repudiation of everything he had done for eight years."

    Post-Cold War
    The Cold War is over, but many of the same challenges remain on Clinton's agenda. Castro is still around, a thorn in the side of U.S. relations with Western Hemisphere neighbors. The Middle East and the Persian Gulf still present major headaches and threats to U.S. interests. And the spy business continues to be a source of too-frequent embarrassments, whether it is Russian agents stealing U.S. secrets or U.S. agents helping the other side. Clinton is about to send the Central Intelligence Agency its fourth director in four years.

    Dwight D. Eisenhower with his wife Mamie, on Jan. 21, 1957. The Washington Post
    The great advantage Clinton may enjoy over Eisenhower is that the economy has rarely looked stronger than it does at the moment, with employment and the stock market booming and optimists saying that business cycles may be a thing of the past. The budget deficits are gigantic by Eisenhower-era standards, but still a fraction of what they were just four years ago.

    After the inaugural glow has faded, Clinton can only hope he has better luck in his second term than those who went before him.

    Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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