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Collins: Curse of the 2nd term

  • President Grover Cleveland's second term ended with the inauguration of President William McKinley in 1893. (Associated Press)

Maybe there's no such thing as a happy second-term presidency.

Let's talk this through. Discussing presidential history is much more fun than discussing HealthCare.gov. Also, I always enjoy having a chance to mention Grover Cleveland.

“He was very unhappy,” said Henry Graff, Cleveland's biographer. “First, he got cancer of the mouth.” That was at the beginning of Cleveland's second term. Because the nation was in an economic crisis, the president kept his condition secret and had surgery on a yacht that was bobbing off Long Island. Then it was time for the Depression of 1893.

See? We're already feeling that things could be worse.

Lately, it really has seemed as if the Obama White House is incapable of producing good news beyond the fact that the debt ceiling wasn't smashed. Swooning websites, security snoops run amok — there'd be some comfort in believing that it's all historically inevitable. “In almost every case, you can argue that the second terms have been pretty dreadful,” said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian.

Think about it. Richard Nixon had to resign. Bill Clinton got impeached. George W. Bush had an average second-term approval rating of 37 percent, which the Gallup people say was the worst presidential plummet in modern history.

Woodrow Wilson had a stroke and spent much of his second term in the bedroom. Franklin Roosevelt was one of the country's most successful presidents, but that was because of Terms 1 and 3. Two was a mess.

In fact, the pattern goes all the way back to George Washington. “Certainly, from his point of view, it was horrible,” said Joseph Ellis, who has written biographies of both Washington and Thomas Jefferson. One of the reasons was the eruption of a hyperpartisan media. When Washington retired, Ellis noted, one Jefferson-backed paper announced: “We can all pray for his imminent death.”

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