Just as farmers plant and reap with the seasons, political journalists consult the calendar for the best time to scatter seed and harvest, with second-term inaugurations being the preferred juncture to deploy temple-tapping discussions of the “second-term curse,” the notion that special doom awaits any modern president who wins the White House a second time.
Like most predictions, this one is for doomsayers. To begin with, the definition of a second-term curse has become so elastic that anything from a few policy setbacks to death can be interpreted as fulfilment of the curse. Even the definition of a second term has been debased by those who call vice-presidents who complete a dead president’s term and win one on their own — Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson — two-termers.
Also, as David Greenberg recently argued in The New Republic, the audit of supposedly failed second terms usually neglects to mention the triumphs, such as President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy successes in Kosovo and Northern Ireland in his second term, President George W. Bush’s winding down of the Iraq war in his second and President Ronald Reagan’s retreat from “Strangelovean apocalypticism” that created a soft-landing place for the collapsing Soviet empire.
Sifting Nexis, we learn that most of the talking heads and writers contemplating the curse in the past couple of weeks have done so to refute it. Writing in The Atlantic, legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar points out that “the idea of a second-term curse fails to account for basic probability,” that the curse is probably more about the regression to the mean than anything else. At Bloomberg View, Al Hunt rejects the curse in his first paragraph. Historian Douglas Brinkley has debunked the curse as mythology in multiple venues in the past week (CBS This Morning, WSJ Live, the New York Times and CNN), as did Doris Kearns Goodwin on Meet the Press and The Today Show (“I think we’ve made too much of second-term curses”).
Two guys with White House experience, David Plouffe and Joe Lockhart, gave the curse a gentle nahhhh brush-off this week, while a pair of Clinton administration insiders, Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, came closest to giving the curse a full-frontal embrace this week with their USA Today op-ed that blamed botched second terms on the “scandal-industrial complex.” In their view, the complex — equal part press, bad public servants who embarrass the president and hyper-partisans who exploit presidential miscues — can be neutralised by a White House practised in damage control: first, confess to mistakes made; next, avoid panic; and finally, maintain the president’s power-enhancing credibility.
Although Fabiani and Lehane frame their op-ed as instructions for President Barack Obama on how to best avoid the second-term curse, their diagnosis and advice isn’t second-term-specific. They hypothesise that the scandal-industrial complex may be “gearing up to derail President Obama’s second term,” but what they offer is a generalised formula a president can use to beat his political critics and naysayers no matter what term he’s serving.
I doubt that, deep down, Fabiani and Lehane believe in the curse or that they believe in presidential “hubris” or “overreach,” which pundits and politicians also love to cite, and which President Obama acknowledged the day after his re-election. “I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” he said. “We are very cautious about that.”
The press has been fixated on second terms (lame-duck wasted years or history-making triumphs!?) since the ratification of the term-limiting 22nd Amendment in 1951, which compressed all the speculation about what a re-elected president might accomplish (or fail to accomplish) in his future terms to just one term, his second. By stoking the idea of a second-term curse, reporters and pundits give themselves a permanent peg for whatever White House story they’re warming in their Crock-Pot. It also allows them to retrieve from their clip files everything they’ve ever written about the ups and downs of second-term presidencies and refresh it for the current news cycle. The recycling window runs from about the second year of the first term to the last year of the second term, at which point not even political novices can be forced to listen or read about the curse and wise editors spike the idea when it’s pitched.
With the exception of President Richard Nixon no second-term president has ever been the recipient of a curse. And it follows that no successful first-termer should ever believe himself blessed. When encountering these words in political journalism, consider yourself warned that heaps of filler are about to follow.