Historians Joseph Ellis, Ellen Fitzpatrick and Stephen Carter discussed the perils of second presidential terms yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation" with host Bob Schieffer.
Schieffer: What is it about second terms? . . . Has anybody had a good second term? I can't remember back when somebody did.
Ellis: The only person that had a second term that was more successful than the first, in my judgment, is James Monroe. That's the last time it's happened.
The pattern is not perfect, but second terms are almost always disappointing, and sometimes outright calamitous. It's almost enough to make you think that we ought to go back and redo the Constitution.
At one point in August of 1787, they were seriously considering one seven-year term. And they were all tired by the time they got to the four-year term. And the pattern is so clear. And I say to my students, it's a function of the ducks, the chickens and the bubbles.
Ellis: Lame ducks that can't enforce discipline on their own party, chickens come home to roost, and you get in a bubble or a cocoon inside your own White House, and you lose touch with the American people.
Schieffer: Well, Ellen Fitzpatrick, you are sort of chronicling the modern American presidency and modern American history. Is it jinxed, or is there usually a reason that second terms don't come out right?
Fitzpatrick: I think there's often a reason. And I think it's important to move away from the notion that somehow somebody got a bad set of tarot cards laid on the table for them. In fact, if you took away the second terms, which have not been all that common in the later 20th century, first terms have been pretty rocky for a lot of presidents as well.
And in the later 20th century, those few presidents that have had second terms very often have come upon the rocks of some kind of military adventurism. That is, war is often highly problematic -- always in any term, but particularly for our second-term presidents in the post-World War II period.
Schieffer: So you see this president's problems as going to the war.
Fitzpatrick: Very much so, yes.
Schieffer: What do you think the state of America is right now, as we're fighting this war?
Carter: I think one of the reasons that President Bush is suffering, apart from whatever issues there may be, is precisely because we live in a time of such deep fracture in America, a time of such enormous division, not only over politics in the partisan sense, but over all sorts of issues of rich and poor, black and white, almost anything you might want to imagine. . . .
In that world, I'm not sure what a president can do to succeed. It would be nice to imagine, as I think a lot of us do, that if you had the right president, if you have a conciliator building bridges. But I think the fault lines are so very deep now that at this moment that it would be very difficult to imagine what it would take to build a successful presidency.