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Archive for Sunday, November 7, 2004

President’s second term could be a minefield

November 7, 2004

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— An upbeat President Bush set forth an aggressive agenda for the next four years, but he also must deal with the realities his predecessors faced -- second terms tend to be disappointments, often marred by scandals, infighting and lackluster performances.

In his second term, Bill Clinton suffered through impeachment by the House and trial in the Senate after his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. The Iran-Contra scandal and upheaval in his inner circle marred Ronald Reagan's second term.

Richard Nixon rode a 49-state landslide into a second term in 1972 and within two years resigned over the Watergate scandal. Dogged by health problems, Republican Dwight Eisenhower watched the Democrats increase their grip on Congress while the Soviet Union took the first leaps in the space race.

"We expect too much. Second-term presidents get careless and cocky. They either overreach, or do something illegal, or don't manage the way they should," said Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University.

Claiming "the will of the people at my back," Bush pledged to bring democracy to Iraq, overhaul the tax code, revamp Social Security, trim the deficit, win enactment of limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, pass an energy bill and create more jobs.

"I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it," he told reporters.

While political veterans say they never would underestimate Bush, especially after his solid victory, they also argue that second terms can be a minefield.

Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett, who advised both Reagan and Bush's father, said Bush should have chosen between revamping the tax code and Social Security -- there isn't enough time to overhaul both "even with expanded Republican control of both houses."

"It's a cliche, but it's true, anyway: Presidents become lame ducks the day they're re-elected," Bartlett said.

Furthermore, if Bush does get to name several Supreme Court justices, confirmation battles could tie up the Senate for many months, dimming chances for domestic legislation.

David Gergen, who served in the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, contends that second terms often come up short because the top-notch individuals brought into office by a new president seldom stick around for eight years, energy ebbs and "anything you really wanted to do, you did in the first term."

Sometimes second-term presidents grow weary of domestic battles and turn their attention to foreign policy challenges, mindful of their legacies.

Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University political scientist, points to Clinton's end-of-term efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and Reagan's outreach to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that helped hasten the end of the Cold War.

"Second terms, in part, are for the history books," Greenstein said.

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