Editor’s Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in April 2004.
Calvin Coolidge was probably not the smartest president this country has ever had, but he once composed a statement that in retrospect can only be described as brilliant: “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” If he had been re-elected, he would have presided over the Crash of 1929, to his eternal discredit. Instead, the shantytowns of jobless people that sprung up during the Great Depression were called, in honor of his unlucky successor, Hoovervilles.
But presidents refuse to learn from Coolidge’s example. About the only thing that can prevent a president from running for re-election is the certainty of losing. George W. Bush was the latest to put in his bid for a second term, even though making a second term successful is about as easy as making a souffle rise twice.
The thinking among politicians and historians is that two terms are required to vault a chief executive from the ranks of the good presidents to the ranks of the greats. But re-election is also a good way to go from good to terrible. Few presidents have enhanced their stature in their second term, and many have blown their reputations to bits.
Bill Clinton would be remembered with far less controversy had he stepped down in 1996, with the nation at peace, the economy healthy and the federal budget deficit well on the way to erasure. Instead, he stuck around for the pleasure of having his sex life dissected in public and becoming the second president ever to be impeached.
Disgrace is a recurring theme of second terms. Ronald Reagan achieved the bulk of his economic program and defense buildup in his first four years, leaving much of his remaining time for the Iran-contra scandal — which involved the secret sale of weapons to Iran, with the proceeds going to rebels fighting the Marxist government of Nicaragua.
Richard Nixon, of course, had Watergate — which erupted because his aides mounted a break-in at the Democratic National Committee office in a crazed effort to ensure his, yes, re-election. He found that winning a second term doesn’t guarantee you’ll complete it.
But even presidents who don’t embarrass themselves rarely do much to distinguish themselves, either. Dwight Eisenhower’s first term gave him the opportunity to end the Korean War. His second term allowed him to enjoy a recession, the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik and a scandal involving his chief of staff.
Franklin Roosevelt is remembered as a great president today not so much because of what he accomplished in his second term, which featured an economic downturn and his Court-packing debacle, but what he accomplished in his third and fourth — reviving the economy and winning World War II. But presidents may no longer be elected to more than two terms.
Anyone presuming to hang around for that long can expect voter affection to cool. As presidential historian Richard Norton Smith asks, “How many TV sitcoms last eight years?” When someone invades your living room for nearly 3,000 days in a row, you’re likely to forget why you ever liked him, assuming you’re one of those who did like him.
Long-serving presidents face other traps. One is that they rarely have any particular vision for their second term. They ask to be re-elected mainly to complete the goals they’ve already begun, which often begin to look tired and irrelevant after five or six years.
That contributes to another obstacle, in the form of Congress. Midterm elections in the second term generally bring big losses for the incumbent president’s party, which means the final two years are often devoted to fruitless bickering between the executive and legislative branches.
Meanwhile, notes Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, presidents find that most of the trusted aides they brought to Washington are gone or on their way out. At Cabinet and White House meetings, says Hess, “They look around and they ask, ‘Who are these people?'” Those few who stay may be mentally and physically exhausted long before they’re done, and their boss may end up phoning it in as well.
There’s something to be said for leaving too early rather than too late. But it’s a rare president who has the wisdom of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother in the musical “Gypsy.” Her advice to her daughter: “Make them beg for more — and then don’t give it to them.”