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The second term curse

By Ciaran Ryan - posted Tuesday, 27 November 2012

It all began with Richard M. Nixon. In 1972, the President was re-elected by an overwhelming margin, winning 49 out of 50 states. It was a stunning victory, and a vindication of his leadership during the previous four years, particularly his foreign policy achievements with the opening of China, and detente with the Soviet Union. But on the night of his greatest triumph, Nixon was morose. He had failed to win the Vietnam War, Congress remained in the hands of his political opponents, and the Watergate investigations were only just getting under way.

Nixon feared what lay ahead, and with good reason. The President had savage political enemies who wanted nothing more than to destroy him, and as he later admitted, his involvement in the Watergate cover-up handed them the perfect opportunity to do him in. 'I gave them a sword', Nixon said, 'And they stuck it in, and they twisted it with relish.' Facing certain impeachment and probable removal from office, the President resigned. Nixon, the man at the centre of this modern day Greek tragedy, couldn't fathom his terrible fate-how could one who had risen so high, be brought so low? Nixon escaped prosecution, (thanks to a pardon from President Ford), but the spectre of Watergate haunted him for the rest of his life.

Ronald Reagan would be the next President to feel the sting of the 'Second Term Curse'. Reagan's re-election in 1984 - like Nixon, winning 49 out of 50 states - gave him a strong mandate to continue his 'Reagan Revolution'. But it almost all came to an end in 1987 when it was revealed that Reagan had personally approved a covert plan to ship weapons to Iran, in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon. To make matters worse, it was uncovered that the profits from the sales were diverted to finance right wing 'Contras' fighting in Central America. 'Iran-Contra', was therefore a three-headed monster consisting of arming Iran, (with whom the US had a trade embargo), negotiating with terrorists for hostages (increasing the likelihood that more Americans would be kidnapped) and funding guerilla groups (which was illegal, as the Congress had cut all funds for this).


In the face of the media fire-storm, Reagan initially refused to admit that it was an 'arms for hostages' deal, and claimed to have no knowledge about the diversion of money to the contras. Despite his stubborn refusal to admit he had done anything wrong, Reagan avoided the mistakes of Watergate: he opened his White House to investigators, didn't cover-up, and in the end admitted that his original policy of 'outreach' to Iranian 'moderates' had deteriorated to an 'arms for hostages deal'. Reagan avoided impeachment, the public forgave him, and he went on to end the Cold War with Mikhail Gorbachev. Nonetheless, 'Iran-Contra' remains a serious blemish on his record.

Bill Clinton was the next two term President, and this time, the President was impeached for 'high crimes and misdemeanours'. A sexual relationship with an young intern named Monica Lewinsky led to Clinton's arch enemy, Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, setting up a 'perjury' trap for the President. While Bill had always told his mistresses that 'if the two people involved in the relationship deny it, then it never happened', Starr had evidence in the form of taped conversations between Lewinsky and her co-worker Linda Tripp, and an infamous blue dress with the President's DNA on it. All that Starr had to do was to get Clinton to lie under oath about the affair, and he would have him. The President lied, Starr had his goods, and Clinton was impeached. But the President refused to resign, and the Senate failed to convict him. Clinton survived, and continued to preside over a period of peace and prosperity, but his name was forever tarnished. When Gore lost the presidency in 2000, he blamed it on 'Clinton fatigue'.

Clinton's successor in office, George W. Bush, also faced the second term curse. Bush's first term had been marked by the 9/11 terror attacks, with the President uniting the country in his 'war on terror', first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. By 2004, that unity was replaced by deep divisions over the wisdom and morality of the President's actions-but Bush managed to win re-election, and claimed that he had 'political capital to spend'. It was not to be. 2005 saw the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and the gross incompetence of the government to respond adequately.

Things went from bad to worse in 2006, as Iraq descended into chaos, and Bush was being pressured by 'the experts' to withdraw American forces from 'another Vietnam' quagmire. That year Republicans lost both houses of Congress in midterm elections, and the President was unable to move forward with reforms for Social Security or immigration policy. While Bush's 'surge' strategy turned the war in Iraq around, snatching victory from the mouth of defeat, the financial meltdown of 2008 meant that his second term ended in catastrophe. Bush left office with approval ratings lower than Nixon's.

Which brings us to Barack Obama. Can he overcome a second term curse? The President didn't have much luck for his first term, marked by acrimonious political gridlock, and with Republicans still controlling the Congress, one wonders if anything will be different for the next four years. But in the final analysis, the President must work with his opponents to get the nation's financial house in order. People have not suffered so much since the Great Depression, and unless the engines of economic growth start moving again, there will be no way to alleviate poverty, turn around the middle class decline, and begin paying down the trillions of national debt. For better or worse, Obama will be President until 2017. If Obama fails, the nation fails, and at this point in America's history, failure is not an option. Obama simply must succeed, and turn a curse, into a blessing.

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About the Author

Ciaran Ryan has a PhD in American Presidential History from the University of Southern Queensland.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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