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Beware the perils of the second term, Mr. President

Updated: December 12, 2012 6:37AM

Most presidents never get a second term. Either because they die during their first term, like William Henry Harrison and John F. Kennedy, or choose not to run for a second term, like Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson, or else they do run and lose, like George H.W. Bush.

A different George, George Washington, set the stage for presidents serving two terms, a tradition that was set into law by angry Republicans wanting to ensure they never had to endure another four-term Democrat like Franklin Roosevelt.

Less known is that Washington set another tradition — the second term being a dud.

“It has been said that during his first term Washington taught his successors how to be president and during his second term how not to be president,” wrote historians James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn.

In Washington’s first term, he defined the executive branch and approved plans for the U.S. Capitol. In his second, he faced a revolt in Pennsylvania — the Whiskey Rebellion — and saw himself denounced as a would-be king. In 1796 the House of Representatives rejected a measure to congratulate Washington on his birthday.

From that moment until George W. Bush’s star-crossed second term, which saw the country racked with financial crisis, almost every second term has spelled trouble for a president, something Barack Obama ought to keep in mind now that he has joined an ultra-exclusive wing of an already-exclusive club — the 17 of America’s 44 presidents who won a second term.

Three of those had second terms so bad they were left unfinished: Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley were assassinated; Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace.

For those who survived, no matter how grim their first term, the second was worse — even FDR, whose first term saw the brunt of the Great Depression, had a “disastrous” second that began with his failed 1937 scheme to pack the Supreme Court and ended with the Nazis overrunning Europe.

Scandal stalks second terms. Bill Clinton spent much of his second term trying to extract himself from the Monica Lewinsky mess and was impeached in 1998. Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra. Ulysses S. Grant’s second term brought a financial panic and scandals — his private secretary defrauded the government —so severe that though Grant remained popular, and wanted to run for a third term, his party rejected him.

Anyone have a better second term? Not Eisenhower, though his wasn’t a huge deterioration. But he came into office and ended the Korean War, while his second term fizzled out with the embarrassment of a U2 spy plane being shot down over Russia.

Not Woodrow Wilson. His was awful. His re-election slogan for 1916, “He Kept Us Out of War,” quickly became a cruel joke as the U.S. entered World War I. The toll on Wilson was heavy — after losing his dream to join the League of Nations, he suffered a stroke that nearly killed him.

How about earlier? Grover Cleveland’s first term was so plagued by economic woes that he failed to win reelection. After four years practicing law, he came back for more and won a second term that was even worse, his popularity sinking so low additional secretaries had to be brought in to handle the hate mail and more guards posted outside the White House.

Andrew Jackson’s managing of the bank crisis was popular in his first term and led to his re-election in 1832; by his second, Southern states were unilaterally ignoring federal law and Jackson was privately threatening to invade South Carolina. Madison? His second term was worse than Nixon’s — the British captured Washington and burned the White House. Jefferson? First term: He doubled size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase. Second: His enemies denounced him as an atheist who kept a harem of slave women (both accusations true, more or less).

To find a president with arguably a better second term, you have to go back to the last Revolutionary War figure to hold the office, James Monroe, whose first term was marred by the Panic of 1819 — the nation’s first depression — but whose second term saw him outlining the Monroe Doctrine.

What’s the problem with second terms? Presidents are by definition older and more tired. They may have used up their good ideas. The glamor of the presidency has worn off for their important advisers, who quit to cash in. New allies who come off the bench often don’t do a good job.

Loss of key cabinet figures is another tradition started by Washington. At the end of his second term — exhausted, disgusted with party bickering — he refused a third and fled to his beloved Mount Vernon, warning of “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party,” calling it government’s “worst enemy.”

Words President Obama might want to tuck away to use when his presidency concludes in four years.

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