Four More Years?

What history tells us about presidents’ second terms.

What history tells us about presidents’ second terms.

By Michael R. Beschloss

(1,352 words; posted Wednesday, July 10; to be composted Wednesday, July 17)

On election night 1972, re-elected by a landslide, Richard Nixon set a fire in the Lincoln Sitting Room, put on a tape of Victory at Sea, and sank into depression. He later wrote, “I am at a loss to explain the melancholy that settled over me on that victorious night.”

In retrospect, the reasons are not so hard to discern. Achieving his adult life’s ambition had robbed Nixon of a sense of purpose. He knew that he was about to face a Congress even more dominated by Democrats, irate over losing a presidential election they had once expected to win, with Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie as their nominee. Many Democrats detested Nixon personally. And with the Watergate coverup already unraveling, Nixon knew that he would have to withstand a year or more of searing investigations by Congress and the courts.

Should Bill Clinton defeat Bob Dole this fall–which remains a large question–he may feel some of Nixon’s melancholy. More than Nixon or any other 20th-century president, Clinton has devoted his life to winning and keeping the presidency. Even as a victor, he may feel a sense of loss. Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott, fuming that the “enemy administration” has stolen their issues to snatch away the White House, will be likely to assert themselves against executive power as rarely before. Amid the drive to balance the budget, there will be little federal money available for the kind of programs that might have enhanced the power of a second Clinton term. And while Whitewater, the FBI-file mess, and Paula Jones may not add up to Watergate, Bill Clinton will not be free from what Woodrow Wilson once called the “whip” of Congressional investigation, not to mention the courts.

If all of this materializes, the 42nd president may wish fleetingly that he had retired to Little Rock after one term. But only fleetingly. Modern presidents have a hard time living with second terms–but they rarely can live very long in history without them. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan each suffered through his second four years. FDR was checkmated by Congress and the Supreme Court. Ike was dogged by Sputnik and reckless charges that the United States suffered from a Missile Gap. Reagan had to wend his way through Iran-Contra. But, as Clinton knows, presidents like William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush, who may do important things in office but fail at re-election, have a hard time with U.S. historians, who have an unseemly predilection for winners.

As with every 20th-century president, winning a second term in the White House is thus a crucial rite of passage for Clinton. But passage to what? With the exception of Wilson, who won re-election on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” and then took the nation into the trenches of Europe, most modern presidents have made us reasonably certain of what we could expect in their second term. The 42nd president is more of a mystery. It is difficult to divine from the history of the past three-and-a-half years which of the Bill Clintons we have seen will emerge once he has shed the electorate’s shackles. Will we see the 1993-1994 champion of Hillary’s leviathan health-care program and tax increases–or the synthetic quasi-conservative of 1995-1996 who hates truancy, likes school uniforms, and exalts a seven-year balanced budget? If Clinton is re-elected, the battle for his soul is likely to begin on election night.

In 1992, the Democratic nominee disciplined himself and his rhetoric to convince American voters that he had departed from the Big Government traditions of his party. Understanding the difficulty of winning the White House in a conservative epoch, liberal Democrats–beginning with Hillary Clinton, Speaker Thomas Foley, and Senate leader George Mitchell–were willing to keep their heads down, but only until Election Day. During his first and second years, Clinton felt compelled to repay them with liberal measures for their quietude and acquiescence during the campaign.

The same expectations would be at work next year. Not irrationally, liberal figures in the Clinton White House, Cabinet, and Democratic Party feel chastened and excluded by Clinton’s swerve to the right. From the first lady on down, they are likely to expect Clinton to redeem himself by returning to the left in a second term in which he need posture no more for the voters. Against this faction will probably be a movement headed by the vice president of the United States. As a more genuine New Democrat and the most prominent member of the administration still facing a national election, Al Gore presumably would not be delighted to see the re-emergence of the Clinton of 1993.

Another issue for a second Clinton term is one that is always important in understanding this president–his psychological and emotional frame of mind. There is no reason to expect that the pattern of self-discipline alternating with grandiosity threading his political career has ended. Before his first election as governor in 1978, Clinton was brilliantly successful in dispelling Arkansans’ worries about his youth and Georgetown-Oxford-Yale education, his McGovern experience, and his liberal friends. As we now know from legend, once elected governor, Clinton quickly managed to anger the people of his state with the impression that he considered himself a president-in-waiting, too large a political figure to stay long in such a backwater.

The same syndrome was writ large over 1993. After winning only 43 percent of the vote–less than Michael Dukakis–Clinton seemed to ignore the election results, which suggested that a vast number of voters had serious doubts about him and that he was something of a provisional president. Instead, he conducted his first few months in office with the imperial presumption (no earlier president invited premature historical comparisons by having events staged for himself at Monticello, the Kennedy grave, the Lincoln Memorial, and the FDR Library, all within a few weeks of his inauguration) and hefty legislative ambitions of a landslide president like the FDR he had studied and dreamed about since he was a teen-ager. Might Clinton indulge himself on an even grander scale once he knows he need never confront a national electorate again?

Clinton would be fully in tune with history if he followed those re-elected presidents who have overreached. It was in the fifth year of their respective presidencies that FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court, Nixon orchestrated the most sordid parts of the Watergate coverup, and Reagan’s men schemed in Iran-Contra. This summer’s FBI-file revelations may prove a useful inoculation against any fierce desire that may lurk within Clinton, his wife, or his close circle to use the re-elected president’s power to avenge the personal and political humiliations of the past two years.

A more inspiring possibility for a second-term Clinton is that we might see a new willingness to ignore the polls. When advisers to Clinton’s hero John F. Kennedy proposed daring initiatives such as withdrawing from Vietnam or endorsing “Red” Chinese admission to the United Nations, their president often replied, “Wait until 1965!” JFK was suggesting that once free of the need to be re-elected and with a stronger Democratic majority in Congress, he would be more able to take courageous stands than he could as a first-term president, elected by a hairbreadth and with a potent Southern Democrat-Republican opposition on Capitol Hill.

Whether, when that big moment arrived, Kennedy actually would have thrown his extreme political self-protectiveness to the winds is questionable. Eager to elect his brother Robert and other Kennedys to high public office, he may not have been so blithely willing to spend his popularity. As far as we know, Clinton has no presidential ambitions for his brother Roger or other relatives. Any Hillary boomlet that once existed now is extinguished. A second-term Clinton might be far more willing than JFK would ever have been to take the heat for risky, unpopular decisions. As one of the most voracious readers to occupy the Oval Office, Clinton knows that in the arena of history, that is how presidents swing for the fences.

Illustration by Philip Burke