Rarely have second terms lived up to the hopes and expectations of presidents or their electorates.
FDR’s began with an attempt to pack the Supreme Court by adding new justices and a second Depression of 1937. He was rescued only by the war in Europe in 1939 and the GOP’s nomination of “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” Wendell Willkie.
What can be called Harry Truman’s second term was a disaster.
In 1949, the Soviets exploded an atom bomb and China fell to Mao. In 1950, the Rosenbergs were convicted as atomic spies for Stalin and North Korea invaded the South, igniting a three-year war Truman could not win or end.
He lost the New Hampshire primary in 1952 to Sen. Estes Kefauver, dropped out and saw would-be successor Adlai Stevenson crushed by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, as Republicans captured Congress. Truman left with the lowest approval rating of a president before or since.
In his second term, Ike did better, but suffered a GOP defeat in 1958, saw Fidel Castro seize Cuba in January of 1959, and had the U-2 shot down by Russia in May 1960 and his Paris summit blown up by Nikita Khrushchev, who berated Ike to his face. His vice president, Richard Nixon, then lost the White House.
The Kennedy-Johnson second term began spectacularly, with passage of all the Great Society legislation. But, in 1966, LBJ’s party suffered huge losses. In 1968, that year of assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, of race riots in a hundred cities, and of campus anarchy, antiwar protests and an endless war in Vietnam, LBJ was challenged in the primaries, quit the race, and saw Nixon succeed him.
After his own 49-state re-election victory, Nixon did not survive his second term. Jimmy Carter did not get a second term.
Ronald Reagan comes close to being the exception.
While he lost 10 Senate seats in 1986, he cut income tax rates from 50 to 28 percent, and his summiteering with Mikhail Gorbachev is seen as a historic success, leading to America’s victory in the Cold War.
The Iran-Contra scandal — trading of arms to Iran for hostages in Lebanon — almost broke his presidency. But by the time Reagan left in 1989, his popularity had been restored, the Cold War was ending, and his vice president was taking the oath of office to succeed him.
George H.W. Bush was denied a second term. And the main event of Bill Clinton’s was his impeachment and Senate trial for the Monica Lewinsky affair.
In his second term, George W. Bush lost his battle for Social Security reform and lost both houses of Congress in 2006, ending his presidency with America mired in two unwinnable wars and plunging into a near-depression.
By January 2009, Bush’s approval rating was approaching the Truman low, and his party had lost the White House.
About Obama’s second term it is hard to be sanguine.
The hopeful news is that, after four years, the U.S. economy appears to be recovering. Progress is slow, but we seem to be out of intensive care and walking the hospital halls.
The perils, however, are visibly present. With its massive creation of money, the Federal Reserve is taking an immense risk that as recovery takes root, inflation may explode. And the hostility between President Obama and House Republicans likely means no big deal to constrain future deficits. Obama added $5 trillion to America’s debt bomb in his first term, and his second promises the same.
This cannot go on forever. Foreign and domestic creditors will one day demand a risk premium for lending money to Uncle Sam.
But it is abroad where the problems and perils seem imminent.
Iraq is drifting toward sectarian-civil-ethnic war. Few are optimistic about the fate of Syria when Bashar Assad falls. Even fewer are optimistic about Afghanistan after U.S. troops depart. The Taliban of Afghanistan’s past may be her future.
Notwithstanding Obama’s campaign claim about al-Qaida being “on the run,” Islamism and Islamist terrorism seem to be growth stocks in the Sahel region of Africa, the Maghreb, and the Middle and Near East, all the way to nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In East Asia, escalating tensions between Japan and China are spawning a new nationalism in both nations, and now warships and jet fighters of both have begun circling the Senkaku Islands.
The most immediate crisis may come this year, when a re-elected Bibi Netanyahu and his neocon and War Party allies demand of the president an ultimatum to Tehran, followed by U.S. air strikes on its nuclear facilities at Natanz and Fordow if Iran does not capitulate.
Obama may be dreaming of amnesty for illegal aliens and a Federal Gun Registry, but most of us would settle for no more wars and no double-dip recession.
Remarkable how the expectations of Americans seem so modest compared to what they were when we were young.
Today, the minimalist slogan, “General Motors is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead!” is enough to get you re-elected president.