History shows second presidential terms often fail

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 20, 2005

Presidential second terms usually end in failure. Since 1900, only Teddy Roosevelt could boast of a second term that was as good or better than his first.

Woodrow Wilson lost Congress, and then couldn’t bring America into the League of Nations. FDR, whose third term was a success, failed to pass anything in his second after he alienated Congress by trying to pack the Supreme Court and purge recalcitrant Democrats.

Harry Truman’s popularity plunged over Korea, as Lyndon Johnson’s did over Vietnam. Ike had two recessions and a hospitalization. Richard Nixon resigned. Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra, and Bill Clinton was impeached.

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The reasons for second-term failure are pretty much the same: Presidents generally do what they are good at in their first four years, then spend their second term responding to the agendas imposed upon them by events.

Plus, re-election itself tends to encourage a spirit of hubris - even as top staff typically depart in search of lucrative jobs, leaving second stringers in charge.

But President Bush has gotten off to a very good start in the weeks since Election Day. Palestine is lurching toward peace. North Korea seems likely to return to six-power talks. Iraq will hold an election, with turnout likely exceeding our own.

Ukraine has opted for democracy. And the tsunami has kindled a global spirit of cooperation and unity unlike anything since 9/11.

But Bush has clearly signaled that he will not devote the next four years - as he has the past three - exclusively to fighting the War on Terror.

While not planning to let up the pressure on our enemies, he plans to tackle the two most difficult tasks in American politics: Social Security and income-tax reform. Only Reagan succeeded in the latter; nobody has ever done both.

President Bush’s hope of success in these daunting challenges depends on an absence of arrogance and hubris and a willingness to recognize the limits of power.

Bush won’t pull off Social Security reform if he bases his plan only on privatization and claims that simply letting individuals invest a portion of their tax payments will solve the system’s problems. Americans won’t buy it, and Bush will be accused of borrowing his way into disaster if he diverts Social Security revenues without any offset in cuts.

But what benefit cuts would be sufficiently acceptable to a wary public? Here, I believe, the answer is to link retirement age to life expectancy.

As we begin to live regularly into our 90s, the age to which we are expected to work should be raised. The government should be willing to subsidize retirement, not an entire second life.

In moving toward a flat tax to replace the current graduated income tax, Bush has to take care to preserve the deductions on which today’s system is based. Eliminating the homeowner’s mortgage-interest deduction or the deductibility of state and local taxes would cause a firestorm of protest. No president can get that through Congress, no matter how disciplined his majorities.

But if the flat tax is a voluntary option, allowing people either to pay it and claim no offsets or to itemize and pay under the old tax rules, the legislation will likely go down easily. Then, our normal preference for a simple life will lead, inevitably, to a larger number of flat-tax payers each year.

That’s not all. The president must also avoid alienating half the country when the next Supreme Court vacancy occurs.

And show real progress in post-election Iraq. And on North Korea. And on Iran. And on Saudi Arabia. And on homeland security.

Nobody said the job was easy.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. E-mail Morris at dmredding@aol.com