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Collins: Curse of the 2nd term

  • In this image provided by the Library of Congress Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller administering the oath of office to Major William McKinley during at his inauguration as President of the United States in Washington in 1897 circa, as outgoing President Grover Cleveland looks on at right. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

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."

Nothing so soothing as the knowledge that everything we're doing wrong was done even worse by the Founding Fathers.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the two-term rule. James Monroe did pretty well, and Dwight Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan was popular when he departed, despite Iran-Contra. But the record does trend pretty hard in one direction. Looking at it, you wonder why more presidents don't just declare victory and go home after four years. Like James Polk, who often shows up in Top-10-presidents lists. But, then, how often does he come up in conversation? How often do you hear a major politician say: "In the immortal words of James Polk?"


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