“Second presidential terms are almost without exception very difficult for the president and his team, for the government and the country,” writes Harvard economist and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Well, yes. But some second terms are less unsuccessful than others.
Summers is persuasive in arguing that most presidents in the last three-quarters of a century have made their major marks in their first terms. But second terms are not always disastrous. Ronald Reagan pushed through bipartisan tax reform, an arms control agreement with the Soviets and a weakening of the Soviet empire that resulted in its collapse shortly after he left office. And his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elected to succeed him by a 7 percent margin, one not exceeded by any presidential candidate since. Bill Clinton — and it was in his second term that Summers served as Treasury secretary — negotiated Medicare and fiscal policies that resulted in a balanced federal budget. His vice president, Al Gore, received a plurality of popular votes in the next election, although not enough electoral votes to win.
Going back in time, Summers notes, as I have in Washington Examiner columns, that Franklin Roosevelt’s second term was largely unsuccessful. The great New Deal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., whose book on the second half of Roosevelt’s first term was published in 1960, lived another 47 years and in that time wrote millions of words (in beautiful prose) for publication. But this great admirer of (if not propagandist for) Franklin Roosevelt never got around to writing a book on his second term, perhaps because he would have found it depressing.
Summers gingerly avoids endorsing oft-made proposals for a single six-year presidential term. “My guess,” he writes, “is that problems caused by lame-duck effects are much smaller than those caused by a toxic combination of hubris and exhaustion after the extraordinary effort that a president and his team must exert to achieve reelection.” Over at vox.com, Matt Yglesias gingerly suggests repealing the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to two terms. “It could be that by rendering second-term presidents ineligible for future terms in office, the 22nd Amendment is slightly undermining the quality of governance by eliminating the basic mechanism of electoral accountability.”
Here I part company. I think the United States is very much a 22nd Amendment nation, a nation that is still inspired by George Washington’s example of serving two and only two terms as president and then retiring to private life. This precedent has been broken only once, and in extraordinary circumstances, when Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term in 1940 and a fourth term in 1944. But that was a time of extreme peril and world war.
In 1940 Hitler and Stalin were allies and, with Japan, were in possession of or threatening to gain possession of most of the landmass of Eurasia. It was the closest the world has gotten to George Orwell’s 1984. In 1944, Roosevelt had demonstrated his brilliance as commander in chief and the United States and its allies, despite landings in Normandy in June and the Philippines in October, were suffering high casualties. Roosevelt was a seasoned and tested leader with vast experience in world affairs, while his Republican opponents Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey, though intelligent and able men, had no foreign or military policy experience whatever.
Congress and the state legislatures passed the 22nd Amendment to prevent any future president from following Roosevelt’s example, but the next two two-term presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, like George W. Bush more recently, plainly had no appetite for a third term. Margaret Thatcher served 11 and a half years as prime minister of the United Kingdom, and Tony Blair served 10 years — both longer than two-term presidents. But I think it's widely agreed that these two leaders of extraordinary ability stayed at least just a bit too long.
Bill Clinton, perhaps, did want a third term and is said to have told friends that he could have won again in 2000 absent the 22nd Amendment. I think he was fooling himself. I think the two-term 22nd Amendment bias of the American people, which had worked to save him from removal after he was impeached (people thought he had been elected to two terms and should be allowed to serve them out), would have worked against him if he had been eligible to seek and had sought a third term.
As for Barack Obama, does anyone now think he is lusting after a third term?