Re-elected presidents usually don’t fare well

Tom West, West Words

Of the 43 men who have served as U.S. president, 15 of them have been elected to a second term. With only one exception, their second terms were worse than their first.

Two of the 15, Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley, were assassinated in the first year of their second term.

Two more, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, were impeached. Clinton  was acquitted and Nixon resigned before going to trial. Furthermore, they both saw economic downturns at the end of their terms of office.

Three other second-termers presided over financial panics. Ulysses S. Grant was in his second term during the Panic of 1873; Grover Cleveland, the only president elected to non-consecutive terms, had just been re-elected when the Panic of 1893 hit; and George W. Bush was at the end of his second term when the Great Recession began in 2008.

A fourth second-termer, Andrew Jackson, oversaw runaway inflation. When his successor Martin Van Buren tried to stabilize the money supply, it caused the Panic of 1837, just five weeks after Jackson left office. Van Buren got the blame, but the result was the same as the aftermath of the other three panics: an extended economic downturn.

George Washington had to put down the Whiskey Rebellion during his second term, an uprising of Pennsylvania farmers upset by a federal excise tax.

Thomas Jefferson, in a rare act of insanity, pushed the Embargo Act of 1807 through Congress, making it impossible to export U.S. goods.

The War of 1812 began during James Madison’s first term as president, but it doesn’t get much worse than having the British burn down the White House, which they did in 1814, the middle of his second term.

Woodrow Wilson ran for a second term in 1916 under the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” and promptly got the U.S. embroiled in World War I during his second term. He then failed to get the Senate to support his proposed League of Nations after the war.

Franklin Roosevelt’s second term was marred by his attempt to add extra members to the U.S. Supreme Court, and by a renewed economic downturn during the Great Depression, which resulted in a swing election in 1938 similar to 2010’s, in which the Republicans made a big comeback.

Dwight Eisenhower’s second term included a significant recession and his chief of staff resigned after improperly accepting gifts.

Ronald Reagan’s second term was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal.

Amateur historians, such as myself, can argue about the finer points. Certainly, one scandal does not make or break a presidential term. (For example, the U.S. won the War of 1812 a year after the White House burned.) I just touched upon the low points of the second terms above. However, any objective analysis of the two terms of the 15 re-elected would find that only one president’s second term went as well as his first.

That would be the presidency of James Monroe, who was first elected in 1816. Monroe tried to do away with political parties, during the so-called “Era of Good Feelings.” The Federalist Party had broken up, leaving only one party.

Monroe thought he should represent the  national interest, not partisan positions or personal ambition. Human nature being what it is, however, within the party, factionalism kept breaking out.

The Era of Good Feelings was strongest during Monroe’s first term, but he deserves credit for initiating the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. Enunciating that the United States would defend the nations of the Western Hemisphere from foreign invasion, it stood as a cornerstone of American foreign policy for almost two centuries.

The bigger question is why second terms don’t go as well as the first terms of presidents. No president is perfect or all-powerful. Events change circumstances, but the political lines remain the same. The accomplishments of a first term reflect a president’s highest priorities. However, re-elected or not, the opposition keeps hammering on the same themes. A president’s shortcomings become sore points.

Polls suggest a majority of Minnesotans believe President Obama deserves re-election. Maybe so, but history suggests that his second term is likely to be worse than his first. That’s something for still undecided voters to think about before Nov. 6.

Tom West is the general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or e-mail tom.west@mcrecord.com.

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