Pawnking, an observant reader, pointed out a while back that Presidents have a lot of trouble during their second terms, which is very true – the term “lame duck” did not come from Daffy Duck cartoons, you know. Just off the top of my head, here are some of the second-term whammies Presidents have run into:
* George Washington had to contend with an armed rebellion by Pennsylvania farmers (the Whiskey Rebellion), and made a controversial decision to back neither France nor England in European war.
* Thomas Jefferson provoked an armed conflict with Spain over the Mexican territory. He also had serious personal financial difficulties and was politically weakened by the Sally Hemmings allegations.
* James Madison saw the United States invaded by Britain during his second term. He is not the only President who has had to chase down Congress to get them to do their job, but so far the only one who had to do so in the literal sense.
* James Monroe sent the U.S. Navy after pirates in the Caribbean, in cooperation with the British Navy. He was somewhat taken to task by the Congress for this, because he did not ask Congress’ authority to do so ahead of time.
* Andrew Jackson was censured by the U.S. Senate for withdrawing deposits to the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson was also criticized for sending troops to Argentina, Peru, and Mexico.
* Abraham Lincoln fell into arguments with Congress about the Reconstruction following the Civil War, and was assassinated early into his second term.
* Ulysses Grant sent soldiers into Mexico, and intervened in Hawaii. He was personally embarrassed by the Credit Mobilier scandal, in which a number of his appointees and colleagues, including Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, were accused.
* Teddy Roosevelt wrangled with Congress over troop deployments to Panama, troop garrison and assistance against a revolution in Cuba, and troops sent to Honduras. He was also embarrassed by allegations that he raised funds for his election in an unethical manner.
* Woodrow Wilson was strongly criticized for the U.S. entry into World War I, which divide the nation in opinion. Wilson also landed troops in China, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Soviet Russia, Dalmatia, Turkey and Honduras without Congressional approval or oversight.
* Franklin Roosevelt was condemned by a number of Congressmen and Senators for the Lend-Lease bases and supply treaties made with England during his second term.
* Dwight Eisenhower was criticized by Congress for sending troops to Lebanon, and to the Caribbean region near Cuba. He was also personally embarrassed by the U-2 incident in 1960 and his lack of support for Hungarian rebels trying to throw off Soviet rule.
* Richard Nixon, of course, was destroyed by the Watergate scandal.
* Ronald Reagan suffered defection of support from Republicans during his second term, especially during the Iran-Contra witchhunt. His second-term policies were commonly rejected even by his own party in craven attempts to protect their self-interest. A key example was the tepid support for Reagan’s 1986 reform of Immigration, which tied a limited amnesty to stricter and more effective border enforcement. The Congress simply ignored the inconvenient particulars.
* Bill Clinton was impeached during his second term, and plagued by a series of scandals concerning his professional and personal behavior. He was also sullied by the LORAL scandal (allowing the sale of cutting-edge satellite and nuclear technology to Communist China in direct violation of extant law) and several fund-raising improprieties, like the actions of Charlie Trie and John Huang. Clinton also was humiliated by disruption of the WTO conference of 1999, when anarchists managed to shut down Seattle for more than two days.
And that’s the fun enjoyed by Presidents who won a second term.
So what does this mean for Team Dubya? Well for one thing, it should be obvious that Dubya’s turbulence, however it is played by the media, is not nearly so rough as other Presidents have faced, and his performance in the conditions of a second term is relatively effective. Part of this is Bush’s clear nonchalance concerning his image, so long as he does what he considers right, a posture which irritates politicos but frees bush’s hands to act according to conscience rather than polling. It helps that Bush has made solid decisions along the way, and so can point to reason and results as he proceeds to subsequent courses in line with his ideals.
The last decision imposed on the country by the Supreme Court is another telling reminder – the Presidency, however potent, is only one arm of the American Government, and the blunders and arrogance of Congress or the Courts may be sufficient to blunt the accomplishments of even the greatest Commander-In-Chief.
But George W. Bush has not really fit the mold, much less the expectations, of the conventional man, not even the ordinary President. He has clearly better morals than Clinton or Nixon, better judgment in his appointments and doctrines than Eisenhower, Grant, or even Reagan, and he gets along much better with Congress than Teddy Roosevelt, Jackson, or Monroe. Comparing him with their self-created troubles is hardly reasonable, therefore. Also, Bush is humble in his designs, yet daring as well. He does not care particularly who gets the credit for a stable Iraq and Afghanistan, but he works hard to make it happen. He does not brag much, which hurts getting credit from the public, but he has done a lot for the Economy and for National Security. He thinks further ahead than most people, and certainly more deeply than most ever realize, which is why his judicial picks and doctrines are firmer and wiser than people will understand for years yet. I could hope Bush would play a shrewder game to help increase the Republican majority, but then I remember how everyone said in 2000 and again in 2002 and still again in 2004, that Dubya was in trouble. They were wrong then, and it’s rather likely that his opponents have once again misunderestimated the President.
Looking ahead to the conclusion of his administration, I expect President Bush will continue to focus first on Iraq and Afghanistan, on getting another pick or two on the Supreme Court, and on reforming Immigration. I do not expect the President to drop any surprises on people – despite the lies told, Bush speaks his intentions clearly and in advance. I also do not expect Cheney to step down or be replaced by someone Bush wants as his “successor”; he does not play that way, which also means that even though I suspect there is a person the President would gladly support, he will not try to tilt the table in what he would see as an unfair advantage for them. Bush will continue to press for permanent tax cuts and for better innovation in government processes. If the Congress wakes up and realizes the opportunity, there is hope for a renewed effort to clean up Medicare and replace SSI with a functional system; surely the next President will not be any more capable and interested than President Bush. But Bush is not likely to shove anything down Congress’ throat, so it depends once again on us to make clear that the President has the support of the people.