Avoiding the "Second-Term Curse"

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    Fending Off the 'Second-Term Curse'
    Set to Tackle Bold Agenda, Bush Hopes to Avoid the Ill Fates Some of His Predecessors Faced

    By David S. Broder, Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A31

    As he takes the oath of office for the second time today, President George W. Bush will confront major challenges, including an unfinished war in Iraq and a looming budget deficit and determined political opposition at home. And he also must overcome what some historians refer to as the "second-term curse" -- the pattern of meager progress and increasing frustration for almost every reelected president in modern times.

    Bush has armed himself for these struggles in the best way he knows how, by rolling up a popular-vote majority and spurring his party to gains in Congress. He told The Washington Post in an interview last Friday: "I'm excited about the second term. I worked hard to get there and campaigned on some specific issues that I'm looking forward to working with the Congress on."

    But if the portraits of former second-term presidents could speak to Bush, almost all of them would say, "Beware what may befall you." From Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a stroke and saw his dream of the League of Nations rejected, down to Bill Clinton, who had to survive an impeachment effort, the pattern has not been happy.

    As if to ward off a similar fate, Bush has set forth a highly ambitious agenda for the next four years. Karl Rove, the architect of both of Bush's White House victories, said in an interview that, from his first conversations with the president about the 2004 campaign, it was clear that Bush's instinct was to set forth big goals and build the political momentum needed to reach them.

    In his first post-election news conference, Bush claimed a mandate for an array of initiatives, such as improving health care and education here at home and encouraging freedom and democracy in the Middle East and other parts of the world where, he said, "tyranny and terror" have long prevailed. Challenging Congress to step up to its "serious responsibilities and historic opportunities," he said pointedly to Democrats and Republicans: "In the election of 2004, large issues were set before our country. They were discussed every day on the campaign. With the campaign over, Americans are expecting a bipartisan effort -- and results."

    The election provided Bush with a strong start in meeting the challenges of his second term. He improved on his 2000 showing, when he trailed Al Gore in the popular vote, and in November he became the first Republican president in 104 years to be reelected with majorities in the House and the Senate.

    Since Election Day, he has substantially revised his Cabinet, naming new people to run nine of the 15 departments. He has shifted some assignments on the senior White House staff, relieving aides who had exhausted themselves in the first term. As for the president himself, Joshua B. Bolten, head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said, "there's no sign he is running low on energy. He sets a fast pace for everyone else."

    Bush will need all the momentum he can muster, because the challenges are formidable. As the war in Iraq heads into its third year, the casualties continue and the outcome remains in doubt. It has been costly in lives and treasure, and it has strained the capacity of the military to meet other global commitments.

    Soon, Bush will make his first overseas trip as a reelected president, heading to Europe to try to repair relations with several longtime allies that opposed his decision to oust Saddam Hussein. He also must keep an eye on the falling dollar, the worsening trade balance, and the rise of new economic powers in China, India and the Pacific Rim.

    Meanwhile, here at home the bill is coming due on the huge budget deficits of his first term, even as demands rise for more government spending on health care, education and transportation. Energy policy -- long stalemated by regional and environmental issues -- is in gridlock.

    As if all that were not enough, the president has placed at the top of his agenda the revision of four basic American institutions, seeking fundamental changes that would alter the lives of virtually every American.

    He wants to change the Social Security system, the 70-year-old prop for the retirement planning of all workers and their families, shifting it from a fixed monthly government stipend to a payout that would depend on people's skills in gauging the financial markets.

    He wants to intervene to slow the flood of lawsuits filed in civil cases, limit the awards for damages and reduce the incentives for lawyers to file such suits.

    He wants to revise American high schools, stiffening the requirements for graduation, even as grade schools nationwide still struggle to meet the requirements he put on them in his first term.

    And he wants to remake the judicial branch of government with the appointment of more "strict constructionist" judges, including in all likelihood one or more new justices who could shift the balance on the Supreme Court.

    It would be a breathtakingly bold agenda for any president. But as Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin scholar of the presidency, said, it is particularly striking to see "a second-term president with the smallest electoral college majority since Wilson in 1916 undertake the most ambitious agenda since Roosevelt in 1936."

    The Hourglass

    Every new presidential term begins on a note of hope, and this one is no different -- even though Bush is, by some measures, in a shakier political position than many of his predecessors.

    A Washington Post-ABC News poll completed Sunday placed Bush's job approval at 52 percent, with 46 percent saying they disapproved. By comparison, Clinton's approval-disapproval scores were 60 to 34 percent in January 1997, and Ronald Reagan's were 68 to 28 percent in January 1985.

    Yet both those presidents joined the list of chief executives who saw things go sharply downhill after their first terms. Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, who enjoyed high popularity after filling out terms for predecessors who died in office, were so weakened politically that they chose not to seek reelection. Truman was done in by the Korean War, inflation and scandals; Johnson, by the Vietnam War, racial unrest and a reaction against the Great Society legislation.

    Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal and the coverup of that "third-rate burglary." Dwight D. Eisenhower and Reagan were slowed by illnesses and foreign policy reversals -- the U-2 affair for the former, the Iran-contra scandal for the latter.

    Only Reagan retained enough popularity at the end of his term to see a successor of the same party, Vice President George H.W. Bush, elected. For the others, retirement came amid loud rumblings of political dissent and disillusionment.

    The causes varied, but the results were eerily similar. Eight years ago, when Clinton was about to embark on his second term, the Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess, a historian of the presidency, remarked on the "very cyclical" nature of that office. "Second terms are like hourglasses," he said, "and the sands run out. . . . Not one of the postwar presidents did better in their second terms than in their first. The slope is always downward."

    Interviewed last week, Hess said: "The picture remains the same. Clinton understood the problem but still was unable to avoid the pattern. I think Bush understands it, and even if he never talks about it, he must have thought about it."

    Rove and Bolten say the topic has not come up in pre-inauguration conversations with the president -- not because of superstition, they say, but because Bush is so focused on the future.

    Rove offers explanations specific to each of the other two-term presidents to explain their comeuppances, insisting that he sees no historical inevitability to the pattern. Both say they see solid reasons for optimism.

    While echoing Bush's warning that the coming year will be "difficult" in budgetary terms, Bolten said the improving economy makes the picture far brighter than it looked during much of the first term. "The budget is a challenge," he said, "but we're on the right path."

    Unlike the first term, which saw Bush repeatedly pressing Congress for additional tax cuts, in this term the emphasis will shift to the spending side. "None of the Bush tax cuts expire this year," Bolten said. "Most of them go on through 2008 or 2010."

    Bush wants all of them made permanent, but he is likely to focus more on holding down expenditures. There, too, Bolten expressed optimism. "Last year, when we said we wanted to hold the overall increase to 4 percent and non-defense spending down to 1 percent, many people said our budget was dead on arrival. But Congress met those goals."

    This year, with the costs of the war in Iraq continuing, Bush may face more pressure from conservatives to trim domestic spending rather than expand it. If so, aides say, he would not be unhappy to see budget cuts even beyond his recommendations. The programs most likely to be trimmed include those important to environmentalists, urban dwellers and low-income families receiving help from Medicaid -- none of them vital constituencies for a Republican Party in quest of long-term majority status.

    Social Security -- which has become a staple of American family life and a principal source of financial stability for the growing ranks of the elderly -- represents more of a political risk.

    The Battleground

    The president has stressed that his proposal would not immediately reduce the monthly benefit checks for any current pensioner or anyone nearing retirement age. But he has shown interest in a proposal that would alter the formula for computing future benefits in a way that would, over time, hold those benefits well below anticipated levels.

    In what some conservatives on Capitol Hill see as an even bigger problem, the administration has talked of borrowing an additional $1 trillion or more to finance the diversion of a portion of current Social Security taxes from the Treasury to launch Bush's program of privately owned retirement accounts.

    Administration officials argue that the prospect of having such accounts, with greater earnings than Social Security provides, would be very attractive to younger workers, many of whom doubt the current Social Security system will be solvent when they retire. Bush is counting on them to overcome the resistance his plan has engendered from almost all Democrats and at least a few Republicans.

    This Social Security struggle -- a battle Bush has chosen to make the centerpiece of his domestic strategy -- has immense long-term political implications. If he succeeds, more and more Americans will look to the stock market and private investments, rather than to a government program, for the basic component of their retirement income. Social Security, the single most popular legacy of the New Deal, would no longer be the great Democratic Party link to the most conscientious cadre of voters, senior citizens.

    But Democrats already are mobilized to fight Bush on this front. He faces more personal antagonism from the opposition party than most reelected presidents, a carryover from his two closely contested elections. If Democrats manage to defeat Bush on Social Security, it could solidify their voter base and embolden them in much the same way that Republicans were energized to take over Congress after they defeated the Clinton health care plan in 1994.

    That is, however, not Bush's only battleground. By resubmitting the names of 20 judges who were denied Senate confirmation votes by the threat of Democratic filibusters in his first term, he has signaled his determination to reshape the judicial branch of government. The likelihood of Supreme Court vacancies in the next four years raises the stakes in this arena.

    The biggest test for the president is taking place in Iraq, where the uncertain outcome of the war may well determine whether the second term will be a success or failure. Iraq ranked as the single most important issue in this week's Post-ABC poll, and a majority of 55 percent to 44 percent said they now believe the goals that the United States sought in invading that country are not worth the cost in lives and money. Still, if Bush can find a way to bring Iraq to a successful conclusion, he could beat the second-term jinx.

    Rove argues that the president is well equipped to avoid two of the chronic problems that have plagued other two-term presidents. In the past, presidents often have found their second-term associates really are second-stringers, people who are weak substitutes for the original Cabinet members.

    Rove said he has been "pleasantly surprised" by the quality of people who have offered their services to Bush. Judge Michael Chertoff gave up a lifetime appointment to the federal bench to become secretary of homeland security. Carlos M. Gutierrez moved from a multimillion-dollar salary as chief executive of Kellogg to become commerce secretary.

    "Conviction inspires that kind of sacrifice," Rove said, "and people see that in this president."

    A second problem for past presidents has been the inevitability of lame-duck status. As time goes by, attention and power shift to those who will be running in the next presidential race. Rove acknowledged that Bush faces pressure to move his agenda forward in the next two years, because "after that, politics starts to clog the system."

    In past presidencies, the midterm election of the second term often has seen severe losses for the president's party. In 1986, Reagan saw Republicans lose 13 seats in the Senate and 48 in the House, making his last two years a misery.

    But, as Rove noted, Bush was instrumental in helping Republicans make almost unprecedented midterm gains in 2002 and will be out trying to make history again next year -- which could buy him time for additional policy victories at home.

    Bush has defied precedent before. When he entered office four years ago, many expected he would have to trim his policy ambitions to fit his exceptionally narrow and controversial victory. Instead, he went for and accomplished major changes in both foreign and domestic policy.

    "He regards leadership as an independent political force," presidential scholar Jones said. "He has enormous confidence in himself."

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