Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Sixth Year Curse

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Sixth Year Curse

Article excerpt

Near the end of 1958, Dwight Eisenhower relaxed for a weekend at the White House with his usual gang of friends. At breakfast, he remarked that 1958 had been a "terrible year" and described it as the "worst of his life" (Ambrose 1984, 486). If Eisenhower could have looked into the future or had consulted the history books, he might not have fretted about his difficulties in 1958. In the past century and a half, all two-term presidents have suffered from political turmoil in their sixth year of office, and the ensuing melee has become known as the "sixth year itch." The "itch" typically refers to the midterm losses that the president's party suffers in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but a president's troubles are not confined to the electoral arena. In fact, the term "sixth year itch" is an understatement. Instead, it is more accurate to describe the problems faced by reelected presidents in their sixth years as an unavoidable "curse" that varies in intensity.

Presidential scholars have done little systematic analysis to determine how presidential administrations evolve, particularly from first to second terms. This article examines a specific block of time--the sixth years of reelected presidents--and finds that the worrisome lore surrounding this period is justified. To assess the scope and characteristics of the curse, I analyze the sixth years of seven two-term presidents and compare the challenges they faced. (1) Using these findings and observations, the implications of this persistent phenomenon will be applied to the upcoming sixth year of George W. Bush's presidency.

Components of the Curse

An overview of the past 150 years of presidential history reveals that the problems occurring in the sixth years of reelected, consecutive term presidents can be divided into three categories: scandals, weakened political coalitions, and midterm electoral defeat. Not all presidents experience difficulties in every category, but each chief executive from Ulysses S. Grant to Bill Clinton endured at least two of the three types of challenges in their sixth years. Although midterm electoral losses are a significant part of the sixth year curse, they are not the whole story. The president's party typically loses seats in the House and Senate in sixth-year midterms because the previous ten months have been a political disaster. In this sense, focusing attention on sixth-year electoral losses fails to examine the heart of the problem, which resides in the political disasters that portend any midterm losses.


Scandals are a routine component of presidential sixth years. Of the seven presidents analyzed, five faced scandals in their sixth years of office. The seriousness of the scandals varied considerably. On the milder side was Grant, who weathered one of his more minor controversies in 1874. Grant's Treasury secretary, William A. Richardson, was exposed for funneling money through a government contract to collect taxes. The implication of bribery led to the resignation of Secretary Richardson, and complicated Grant's decision regarding the widely popular inflation bill that sat on his desk for signature. Given the firestorm surrounding the Treasury Department, Grant's remaining cabinet members urged him to sign the bill, which he intensely disliked. With congressional elections around the corner, his confidantes emphasized the political effects of his decision (Smith 2001, 579). Nonetheless, Grant could not bring himself to sign the bill and suffered severe losses in the midterms. Dwight Eisenhower also experienced a minor scandal in his sixth year. An oversight committee in the House found that his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, had taken gifts from a manufacturer who faced several regulatory investigations (Pach and Richardson 1991, 180). Due to his supposed liberal influence on Eisenhower and his abrupt way of dealing with members of Congress, fellow Republicans did not rush to help the embattled chief of staff. …

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