Four poor years?

Bush backers boast that his victory gives him a chance to join the greats. But most reelected presidents have been far less effective in their second term than in their first.

By Ted Widmer
Published November 13, 2004 1:31AM (UTC)
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Somehow, I always knew a Red Sox victory in the World Series would bring us dangerously close to Armageddon. And now, with George W. Bush's resounding victory on Nov. 2, the table is set just a little too neatly. The Kerry administration lasted about six hours, from the midafternoon gossip about exit polls until the sun set on our fantasy and the real news came in. Suddenly, emphatically, all speculation about which Democrat would be secretary of state seemed worse than inconsequential. A year ago, the agony of Red Sox fans was increased by the knowledge that groundskeepers had prematurely spray-painted a World Series logo on the grass of Fenway Park, before losing Game 7 to the hated Yankees. This year's six-hour Indian summer had the same effect. Now Democrats have a long winter and four more years to reflect on what might have been.

Instead, four very different years now begin. Will they resemble the last four? Neither the historical record nor the past behavior of the Bush administration holds out much hope for improvement. True, President Bush uttered conciliatory words during his victory remarks and in his press conference on Nov. 4. But messages encoded in those same speeches sent the usual winks and nudges to the GOP faithful that there was little reason to fear any deviation from the sharp rightward tack the country has been sailing on since 2001.


As Bush's people have been repeating to anyone who will listen, second-term presidents are a relative rarity in American history. Political chief Karl Rove said -- correctly -- that winning reelection is a crucial step toward ranking as a great or near-great president. It is surprising to go through the roster and see how many impressive presidents failed this simple-seeming test (Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, among others). In the last century, only seven presidents won reelection: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and now Bush. In nearly every case, however, reelection brought with it unexpected difficulties. A paradox emerges: Presidents need reelection to rank with the immortals, yet almost all reelected presidents sustained devastating setbacks in their second term that compromised their reputations.

Although all presidents are different, a glance at the second-termers reveals some interesting parallels, beginning with the intensely ideological president whom Bush resembles more than he cares to admit. Woodrow Wilson is chiefly remembered today for leading the United States into World War I, which in fact happened not long after his second term began in 1917 (violating the implied pledge of his campaign to keep us out of war). To be sure, that effort and the diplomatic negotiations that followed enlarged his and America's reputation. But a series of miscues caused great damage, beginning with Wilson's embarrassing failure to secure congressional approval for the League of Nations.

And that was only the beginning of his problems. A historian examining America in 1918 and 1919, expecting to find a nation basking in military victory, instead finds a people roiled by debates over civil liberties, women's rights, influenza epidemics and idiotic nostrums intended to restore a sense of prewar tranquillity (Prohibition). While embroiled in the League debate -- a fight he lost because of his unwillingness to admit mistakes or work with the opposition -- Wilson also surrendered his administration's prestige by tolerating an abusive attorney general willing to suspend civil liberties in order to bully critics. Broken by the League battle and the health problems he incurred while fighting it, Wilson was unable to provide robust leadership when America desperately needed it, long after the military parades were over.


FDR was too smart to fall into any of those traps, but there is no denying that his second term was far from his most glorious. His most famous failing was the controversy over packing the Supreme Court, a rare case of tone-deafness (though his threat to add up to six new judges to the Supreme Court did make the Court more reasonable). His second term also saw a distressing recession, in 1937-38, and serious difficulties working with an isolationist Congress that wanted no part of FDR's preparation for war.

This is the parallel Bush and his handlers would like applied to them, as if opposition to the poorly conceived Iraq war is "appeasement." But it is utterly ahistorical -- and insulting to World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors -- to compare Hitler and his allies to Saddam Hussein, the tin-pot dictator of a nation whose gross domestic product was roughly equal to Kentucky's.

Twenty years later, in 1956, Dwight Eisenhower easily won reelection, but he too was weakened by a series of unexpected setbacks. Inflation and recession frustrated Americans eager to support growing families; and unpleasant surprises, from sources both domestic (the controversy over integrating Little Rock Central High School) and otherworldly (Sputnik), made life much tenser than our sugarcoated memories of the 1950s allow. The Republicans suffered severe setbacks in the 1958 midterm elections, and the disastrous U-2 incident gave John F. Kennedy plenty of ammunition for his charges of mismanagement during the 1960 campaign.


Richard Nixon, of course, offers the classic example of how not to lead a second term. Watergate is Exhibit A, but that hardly begins to describe the list of problems that Nixon -- reelected by a landslide -- had to confront when he returned to work in 1973. Record inflation and a plunging stock market combined to depress spending power, but nothing hurt Americans more than the energy crisis, which seemed for a few months to portend the beginning of a new post-automotive age.

Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984 was nearly as overwhelming, but he too turned in a surprisingly poor performance in his second term. Reagan deserves credit for his arms talks with Mikhail Gorbachev, but like his Republican predecessors he presided over a badly slumping stock market, and as the unsavory details of the Iran-Contra scandal unfolded, Reagan seemed so out of touch that audiences were almost relieved when his public appearances were curtailed.


The story of Bill Clinton's second term remains difficult to tell objectively because the partisan emotions of that time remain deeply felt on both sides. Undeniably, what was by far his worst moment as president -- the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- fell squarely in the second term. But unlike all of his two-term predecessors in the 20th century, Clinton presided over an economy that was improving, and improving rapidly. To the surprise of weathered observers of politics, his public support increased dramatically throughout the scandal and impeachment process, and Democrats scored impressive wins in 1998 -- the last time they have done so. Furthermore, Clinton forced through an array of impressive achievements at home and abroad that showed a president who had clearly grown into the job, unlike Reagan, Nixon and Eisenhower. The Republicans still like to argue that the recession of 2001 began on Clinton's watch. But even if that debatable point is conceded, it seems clear that Clinton maintained his grip on the levers of government as effectively as any second-term president since FDR.

All of which brings us, of course, to Bush and the likely hallmarks of his second term. He has already made it clear that he intends to work on Social Security reform, tax issues and education, and he will doubtless claim that his victory offers a "mandate" for change. But it is highly uncertain if events around the world will let him pursue the agenda he is starting to outline. The election of 2004 was a relative rarity in that it was dominated by foreign policy, and there is no reason to believe that will change anytime soon. In the past week or so, there has been a startling disconnect between the benign images of a president speaking airily about bipartisan cooperation and domestic initiatives and, on the other side of the world, Iraqi insurgents and U.S. soldiers locked in lethal combat. In Fallujah, the unveiling of Operation Phantom Fury -- its name resembling a violent new video game -- will surely push No Child Left Behind even further onto the back burner.

It seems likely that Bush's second term and ultimate reputation will depend on the government that emerges not in this country but in Iraq. Not since LBJ have a president's fortunes been tied so closely to the spread of democracy in a contested territory far from American shores. After years and countless speeches promoting the urgency of this fight, President Bush has finally created the emergency that he always insisted was lurking in Iraq. But unfortunately, the crisis has become far more difficult to solve in that time, thanks to a series of epic blunders by the Pentagon and its civilian administrators.


A great deal more money and manpower will be needed before the last Americans can come home, if indeed they do come home in the next four years. I suspect that some token troop reductions will be offered as evidence that the conflict is over, in advance of the 2008 election, while National Guard units, reservists and full-time soldiers are deployed there for years to come, reducing enlistments and our ability to intervene elsewhere in the world. A foreign policy expert I spoke with recently argued that this is actually the best-case scenario -- because if we are tied down in Iraq for four years, it will reduce our ability to do harm to our reputation anywhere else. The worst-case scenario involves Wilsonian adventuring in Iran, Syria and North Korea -- a long shot even for this president.

Unlike most previous two-termers, Bush is young and healthy, and there is no reason to expect the diminution of faculties that slowed Eisenhower and Reagan. But Bush also lacks their capacity for sober reflection and self-correction, and it is impossible to imagine him giving a great counterintuitive speech like Ike's farewell address (which warned against "the military-industrial complex") or taking a bold risk for peace by negotiating with an enemy. (Reagan denounced Gorbachev's Soviet Union in language every bit as strident as Bush's "axis of evil.") One of the many disappointments of the first term was Bush's adamant refusal to negotiate with anyone, from the North Koreans to the Israelis and Palestinians. If Bush would like to get the world's attention, and build a genuine legacy, he could start on both those scores.

Contrary to the position he staked out in his debate with John Kerry on foreign policy, our partners in the six-party talks would like the United States to negotiate unilaterally with the North Koreans. (The South Koreans, losing patience with our incompetence, are quickly growing as anti-American as the North Koreans.) And the disequilibrium in the Middle East, so obvious at moments like Yasser Arafat's coma and subsequent death, is unseemly for a government like ours that loudly claims to care about promoting peace and freedom in the Islamic world. We can and must step in to help build peace between Israelis and Palestinians, especially after years of promising to follow a "road map" that now appears to be locked in the glove compartment. No one has ever said it would be easy. But hard steps are what make presidents great.


Meanwhile, the only progress toward defusing Iranian nuclear tensions is being achieved by European negotiators -- exactly the people we alienated in our noisy approach to Baghdad. Incidentally, while no one was paying attention last week, the prime minister of Norway, Kjell Magne Bondevik, announced that Norway may finally join the European Union because he finds Bush's unilateralism so distasteful.

There are many other foreign policy crises that cry out for attention, but few will receive it in the months ahead. To cite the nearest example, inter-American relations have worsened significantly over the past four years. Some of it is a personal distaste for the Bush style, universally felt throughout the hemisphere, but much of it is a well-founded argument that the Bush team talks about democracy out of one side of its mouth while supporting coups (against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela), hiring old Contra supporters like Elliott Abrams, ignoring humanitarian crises in its backyard (Haiti), and nursing ancient grievances for political reasons (Cuba) when the rest of the world has forgotten about the Cold War.

U.S. engagement in the rest of the world is no better. In Africa, we are underfunding the AIDS commitments we made so grandiosely. And have we ever looked weaker than we do in Sudan? We are losing to tribesmen riding horses -- tribesmen who might as well be living in the first century. We may spend more on our military budget than the next 15 nations combined, but a squalid humanitarian crisis, far from supply lines, is all it takes to show how ineffectual our ability to project force truly is. We are essentially powerless to stop the crisis in Darfur, limited by many factors -- our overextended military, our slipping prestige and our lack of political will. Others like it will surely follow in a world that is growing more, not less restive.

Our relationships with China and India have not declined as drastically, but they are watching our actions in Iraq carefully, and in half a century, when we are asking them to exercise restraint in either economic or military matters, they will take great pleasure in pointing out our own example to us. Around the world, in places ranging from Turkey to the United Kingdom, some of our most valued allies are deeply skeptical of U.S. motives, and as countless surveys have proven, there has been a staggering decline in U.S. support in every country on earth except Russia and Israel. The affection the world once held for America is melting faster than the Arctic ice caps.


Although Bush is famous for declaring his lack of interest in the judgment of history, surely at some level he cares about it. If he did care, he would take serious steps to improve key bilateral relationships -- not just with high-level diplomatic meetings but through the kind of personal attention only a president can provide. He would stand in the open air, before large crowds of the world's people, and speak from the heart about what America stands for, renewing our commitment to the kind of global vision the U.S. was once trusted to provide. He would defend what he believes in in the free marketplace of ideas, rather than retreating behind a podium to give a canned speech about "freedom's march."

Are any of these things likely to occur? Stranger things have happened. But with American troops laying waste to Fallujah and problems in Iraq multiplying faster than we can solve them, the odds seem even longer than the late afternoon shadows in the desert. An American failure in the Middle East will certainly help the chances of Democrats already striving toward 2008, but it hardly bodes well for the future of democracy, or the nation supposedly dedicated to it.

Ted Widmer

Ted Widmer, chief speechwriter on the National Security Council during President Clinton's second term, directs the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

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Bill Clinton George W. Bush Ronald Reagan