Magazine article Newsweek

History: The Five-Year Itch; Second Terms Are Often Tough for Our Presidents. but Today's Dark Clouds Don't Always Dictate Tomorrow's Legacy

Magazine article Newsweek

History: The Five-Year Itch; Second Terms Are Often Tough for Our Presidents. but Today's Dark Clouds Don't Always Dictate Tomorrow's Legacy

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Beschloss (Beschloss is the author, most recently, of 'The Conquerors.')

In the fall of 1937, less than a year after winning re-election by the greatest popular landslide in history, Franklin Roosevelt was suffering from a second-term slump. So menacing was the economy that FDR's Treasury secretary warned him, "We are headed right into another depression!" Many congressional Democrats told the president they would jeopardize their jobs if they voted for New Deal bills. In 1938, many Democratic candidates distanced themselves from Roosevelt--and FDR lashed out at the press. He wrote a friend that "all the fat-cat newspapers--85% of the whole" were "utterly opposed" to him.

Buffeted by the savaging of his ill-fated Supreme Court pick, the indictment of his vice president's chief of staff, setbacks in Iraq and stumbles over Hurricane Katrina and soaring oil prices, George W. Bush has watched his public approval dip below 40 percent. He may be consoled to recall that during the half century since Roosevelt, every president returned to office has found his second term a bitter experience--yet several also left a positive historical mark during the tumult of that last four years in office.

Presidents fall into second-term slumps for different reasons. More important for President Bush is how they get out of them. Roosevelt gained an unprecedented third term by convincing the country that he alone was equipped to shield them against the growing threats from Hitler and the imperial Japanese. Ronald Reagan shook off the albatross of Iran-contra by joining Mikhail Gorbachev to wind down the cold war. Straining to survive the Monica Lewinsky mess, Bill Clinton boasted that he was responsible for the longest economic expansion in American history. ("Dow Jones, not Paula Jones.")

If a majority of the public thought the Iraq war were going well, Bush might naturally turn--as second-term presidents often do--to foreign affairs, climbing aboard Air Force One to pursue his aim of expanding democracy throughout the Middle East and the world. …

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