Bill Clinton and the Politics of Second Terms

By Nelson, Michael | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Bill Clinton and the Politics of Second Terms

Nelson, Michael, Presidential Studies Quarterly

A president's second term almost invariably turns out to be less successful than the first term. Historians may argue about whether the second terms of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Grover Cleveland fit this pattern.(1) But in the era of the modern presidency, second terms have been disappointing experiences for all of the presidents who have earned them. Although only Richard Nixon left office in disgrace, each of his two-term colleagues--Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan--found their second terms to be less productive than their first terms.(2) In this way, at least, Bill Clinton's second term, so unusual in other ways, likely will prove no exception to the rule.(3)

The Anomaly of Second-Term Disappointment

Why do second terms tend to be disappointing? After all, one might easily expect the opposite to be so. The second-term president, who because of the Twenty-Second Amendment cannot run again, is free from the cares of reelection politics that many presidents regard as impediments to doing the best job possible. At least that is what they say when they endorse the proposal for a single, six-year presidential term, as several recent former presidents have done, including Eisenhower, Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.(4)

More important, presidents begin their second terms with four years of on-the-job training. They are in the ascending phase of the "cycle of increasing effectiveness" that comes with experience in office. As Paul Light, the inventor of the concept, argues, "The presidential information base should expand; the president's personal expertise should increase. As the president and the staff become more familiar with the working of the office, there will be a learning effect."(5)

In many ways, Clinton has grown in the presidency, following the pattern of his long tenure as governor of Arkansas. His White House staff, hastily thrown together late in the transition period that followed the 1992 elections and correspondingly chaotic during the first two years of his presidency, gradually became more surefooted after he appointed Leon Panetta, then Erskine Bowles, as chief of staff and Mike McCurry as press secretary. The president himself gained confidence as commander in chief when he discovered that the public respected him for having the courage to make unpopular decisions, notably those that extended U.S. assistance to Bosnia, Haiti, and Mexico. (Privately, Clinton likened the public's response to "telling your children to go to the dentist--they don't want to go, but they know you're right."(6)) He learned how to deal with a professional, independently minded Congress after many years in which his only legislative experience was with the amateur legislature of Arkansas. Clinton's public deportment mirrored his growth. Out went the much-photographed jogging shorts and limp salutes, in came a straight, shoulders-back posture and, with some coaching, crisp salutes.

Offsetting these advantages of the second term, however, are more numerous and significant disadvantages for the president. In the remainder of this article, I describe these disadvantages, with special attention to Clinton, roughly in the order that they develop during a president's tenure in office.

Postponed Problems

During the second term, problems that were postponed from the first term because they were so controversial or intractable as to jeopardize the president's reelection come back to haunt the administration. During his first term, for example, Roosevelt downplayed his important constitutional differences with the Supreme Court for fear that he would lose support among voters who approved of his policies but would resent any attack on the independence of the Court. Nixon engaged in a massive cover-up of the Watergate affair to prevent it from sullying his reelection campaign. …

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