WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- For presidents, practice apparently doesn't make perfect.
who win re-election can claim what would seem to be an invaluable
asset: Four years of on-the-job training for one of the most demanding
posts in the world. Yet the second terms of modern presidents typically
are remembered for assorted catastrophes. Richard Nixon resigned. Ronald
Reagan became enmeshed in the Iran-contra scandal. Bill Clinton was
impeached. George W. Bush was buffeted first by Katrina and then by a
cascading financial crisis.
As President Obama prepares for next
week's inauguration, he acknowledges the cautionary history. "I'm more
than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in
second terms," he told reporters at a White House news conference after
his re-election. He discussed the prospects and pitfalls of second terms
last Thursday at a private White House dinner with nine presidential
"By the time a second term rolls around, the illusions
about a president have largely evaporated," says Robert Dallek, one of
those invited to the dinner and the author of influential biographies of
Presidents Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. "In second terms, the big
problems that confront the country, and they're always there, more or
less catch up with the incumbent."
To be sure, some presidents
have scored significant achievements in their second terms, from the tax
code overhaul signed by Reagan to the balanced federal budget during
Clinton's watch. But advisers who have been there say the rhythms and
political dynamics of the second term are different from the first.
the first term, you're running for re-election," says Ken Duberstein,
White House chief of staff for Reagan during his second term. "In the
second term, you're running for legacy." That impulse - "whether it's
hubris or overreach or over-interpreting a mandate" - sometimes
contributes to stumbles.
John Podesta, chief of staff for Clinton
in his second term, says there's no "unifying physics theory" to explain
the second-term curse, a concept that has become so accepted it has its
own Wikipedia page. Despite that conventional wisdom, he says second
terms also pose an opportunity for a president to deploy a more seasoned
staff and exploit more executive powers.
USA TODAY asked top
White House aides to Reagan, Clinton and Bush during their second terms
for their tips, some reflecting hard lessons learned during their time
in the West Wing. Here's what they told us.
1. Watch the clock
Constitution says there are four years to a second term, but political
reality says a president's ability to command public attention and
compel congressional action begins to ebb well before that. "People tend
to get tired of their president in the second term," says Frank
Donatelli, second-term White House political adviser to Reagan.
history has proven that second-term presidents typically get the most
accomplished in their first year and a little in their second and then
not a lot accomplished as the party fights over who the next
standard-bearer will be," says Sara Taylor Fagen, political adviser in
Bush's second term.
That means Obama's major legislative
initiatives for his second term probably need to be spotlighted in his
inaugural address next week and detailed in the State of the Union
speech that follows next month. His opportunities are likely to shrink
as time passes, and fast.
"It's the Benjamin Button theory
of the second term," says former Clinton White House aide Chris Lehane, a
reference to the 2008 movie and F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. "You
have a year to 16 months, max, to do anything, at least domestically.
You're going to age in reverse."
At the midpoint of Bush's second term, press secretary Dana Perino
saw attendance at daily White House briefings drop as reporters shifted
to the 2008 campaign. "Toward the end, I said, 'If we are on the front
page of the paper, we have done something terribly wrong or have a huge
problem,'" says Perino, now co-host of The Five on Fox News Channel.
potential problem: The midterm congressional elections. The president's
party often suffers big losses in the sixth year of a presidency,
although Democrats already may have taken much of that hit in the 2010
elections, when they lost control of the House of Representatives.
Democrats probably will have more muscle in Congress for the next two
years than in the final two of Obama's term.
"There's a little bit
of a feeling that you become chopped liver in your seventh and eighth
years as the campaign heats up," says Podesta, who ran Obama's
transition operation four years ago and is now chair of the Center for
American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. "The play is going to
2. Pick a priority
The president can do
something in his second term, the veterans say, but not everything.
Fighting too many battles could mean winning none.
Obama has said
his major goals for his second term include enacting a comprehensive
immigration bill and energy legislation, and he has added gun control
to the list since the December shooting rampage at a Newtown, Conn.,
elementary school that left 26 children and educators dead. In the next
few months, he also faces the need to raise the debt ceiling and deal
with automatic spending cuts that are poised to take effect.
Some veterans say his list is unrealistically long. "It's still not clear to me what they really want to do," Perino says.
hard line Obama has drawn with Republicans on the debt ceiling risks
sapping his political capital and leaving scars that will make
prevailing on the other issues more difficult, Fagen says. "If he spends
this year fighting with Republicans on the debt ceiling and the fiscal
cliff, yeah, (House Speaker) John Boehner may lose the hand on that,"
she says, but Obama "is the one who is going to be harmed the most
After carrying 49 states in his re-election, Reagan
focused on overhauling the tax code, and succeeded. Bush also picked a
clear second-term priority - adding private investment accounts to
Social Security - only to see it crash in Congress. His next proposal,
to overhaul immigration, also failed.
Bush told reporters after
his re-election that he had "earned capital in the campaign, political
capital, and now I intend to spend it." To his dismay, he apparently
hadn't earned enough capital to push through such divisive proposals.
made a similar point at his news conference Monday when asked about a
pending showdown with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling.
"They've got a particular view of what government should do and should
be," he said. "And, you know, that view was rejected by the American
people when it was debated during the presidential campaign."
needs to be realistic about not "misinterpreting the size of his
victory," Fagen says. "That is a recipe for having a very long and
cantankerous legislative session with little accomplished."
3. Fix a first-term problem
One good thing about second terms: It's a chance to reverse some of the errors made the first time around.
made changes in his fractious national-security team during his second
term, eventually installing new secretaries at the State Department and
the Pentagon. Clinton was criticized during his first term for inaction
on bloodshed in the Balkans; in his second term, he engineered a NATO
bombing campaign that halted ethnic cleansing by Serbs in Kosovo.
also revisited the signature disaster of his first term, the failure of
his proposed health care overhaul. In his second term, he pushed
through several smaller pieces of legislation, expanding coverage for
children and ensuring more insurance portability.
For Obama, the
second term is an opportunity to show that the Affordable Care Act can
deliver on its promise to expand health care coverage and control costs.
Nearly three years after Obama signed the health-care overhaul, the
public remains unconvinced. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last month, just
30% of those surveyed said the law was going to make things better for
their families; 40% predicted it would make things worse.
have to put an emphasis on the execution of the programs you put in
place in the first term," Podesta says. "For Obama, that's a
particularly critical chore with respect to health care. At the end of
the day, passage of the Affordable Care Act is going to be the signature
achievement of his first term, and it will only be viewed positively if
properly implemented in his second term."
Obama also work to strengthen his ties to members of Congress. "It is
not too late to build lasting relationships on both sides of the aisle,
because it's a means to an end," he says.
4. Look abroad
Watergate raged, Nixon got a hero's welcome in Moscow. During the
aftermath of the Iran-contra investigation, Reagan signed an
arms-control treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Even after his
successor had won the 2000 election, Clinton spent the final days of
his second term trying to reach a Middle East peace deal that proved
During second terms, foreign locales can seem more
appealing and more productive than domestic ones, especially when the
next presidential election has taken over attention at home.
is a sense that presidents sort of end up concentrating more on foreign
policy toward the end," Podesta says. "They certainly have more
capacity to take the initiative. You can't ignore Capitol Hill, but you
have much more power to take the initiative, so it's a natural place
presidents late in their second terms go."
During his second term,
Obama plans to withdraw most U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the
end of 2014, drawing America's longest war to a conclusion. With that,
he could find a new opening to focus on the nations touched by the Arab
Spring. That could involve the current violence in Syria and a potential
crisis with Iran over its nuclear program.
That instinct to look
abroad affects presidential spouses as well. Hillary Rodham Clinton and
Laura Bush traveled extensively abroad during their husbands' second
terms. Laura Bush went to Africa to spotlight the U.S. global initiative
against AIDS and to the Arab world to promote the cause of women and
girls in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"You do have a tendency to
work a little bit more on global issues in a second term," says Anita
McBride, chief of staff for Laura Bush during her husband's second term
who now runs a project on first ladies at American University. "You sort
of realize you've got this worldwide platform to use."
5. Brace for trouble
misbehavior that caused some of the most celebrated second-term
scandals didn't actually happen during second terms. The Watergate
misdeeds came during Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, for instance.
Clinton's White House liaisons with Monica Lewinsky began a year before
his 1996 re-election.
In those cases, winning the second term gave time for misdeeds to become known and opened the door to full-blown investigations.
federal government is this enormous apparatus, and it's just a matter
of time where somebody, somewhere winds up screwing up," says Donatelli,
who now chairs GOPAC, a group that trains Republican candidates. "It
takes awhile to work through the system, and for people to find out
Whatever the origins and timing, every second-term
president of the past half-century has had to contend with a major
scandal involving themselves or, at times, officials acting without his
knowledge. The Valerie Plame affair, which drew headlines in Bush's
second term, was sparked by a newspaper column outing the identity of a
CIA operate that ran more than a year before his re-election.
A scandal that could bedevil Obama's second term might have already happened, though he may not know about it yet.
by definition, because you've been in office so long, something is
going to pop in a day and age where the opposition party in particular
is looking to use the investigative process and the ethics issue as a
partisan bludgeon," says Lehane, who worked on the Clinton White House
response team for the Lewinsky and other investigations. He is the
co-author of Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control,
published last year. "Almost every single day, you're out there on a
high wire with somebody jiggling it. Eventually, you're going to fall."