By Michael A. Genovese
There is a curse that haunts presidents in their second terms that is virtually unshakable and unavoidable. It threatens to bring the president low and, in several cases, has actually destroyed administrations. Beware the curse for it knows no mercy.
The second-term curse stretches back to the very beginning of the republic. In essence, the curse brings bad news and trouble, even of crisis proportions, to all second- termers. Precious few have escaped its wrath. George Washington was bitten by the curse as he faced an open rebellion in Pennsylvania in his second term. Thomas Jefferson faced a deep economic recession as a result of his Embargo Act. Under James Madison, the British burned down the White House! And the list goes on and on.
In the modern era, the curse has visited all second-term presidents. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term was a time of personal (a severe heart attack) as well as political crisis (his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, resigned in disgrace, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet air space and its pilot was captured). When Ike’s vice president, Richard Nixon, eventually was elected president, his second term was terminated by the Watergate crisis.
Ronald Reagan faced a constitutional and moral crisis with his Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton was impeached in his second term. And George W. Bush saw his popularity plunge to historic lows as he presided over two wars abroad and an economic collapse at home. The only president to shake the curse was Teddy Roosevelt, and in his case, the curse was probably afraid to strike for fear that TR would strike back.
In our less superstitious age, we search for tangible causes of this phenomenon. Why such a persistent and unshakable pattern of blunders, bad luck, bad news and crises in the second term of nearly every two term president? Is it because by the second term the problems of the first term come home to roost? Are second-term presidents out of new ideas? Are they exhausted, physically and mentally? Are second-term presidents lame and therefore dead ducks? Are second- termers careless and sloppy? Is it just bad luck? Or is there really a curse?
Where might the curse be visited upon President Obama? If we round up the usual suspects, we must point an accusing finger at the Middle East as the most likely source of trouble. If past is prelude, Obama can expect significant problems in that region, as presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush the Younger so painfully found out. Radical Islamists, Libya, Syria, Iranian nuclear weapons, Israeli security issues, all loom as potential trouble spots. Another potential problem area is the economy. What if the European debt crisis explodes, taking down the global economy with it?
Is there a way to avoid the curse? In his classic work, “The Prince,” Niccolo Machiavelli reminded us of just how fragile and fickle fate can be when he reminded uspointed out that no matter how smart or well intentioned we are, in the end we are all at the mercy of fortuna . When she smiles upon us, there is virtually nothing that can’t be done, but when she chooses to smite us, we are at its mercy. The old saying “it is better to be lucky than smart” applies to presidents, as well as us. Second term? Be careful what you wish for as you just might get it.
Michael Genovese is the Loyola Chair of Leadership in the Political Science Department and author of more than thirty books, including “A Presidential Nation” (Westview, 2012)
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