Second Term Presidents

 

One of the enduring features of American political history is the phenomenon that second-term presidents are declared to be dead or finished long before they actually are -- and that some of the most important actions in the field of foreign policy come near the end of their terms.

 

Bill Clinton’s presidency was said to be over in 1998, at the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Yet it was not until two years later that he won congressional approval for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. That was one of the most enduring legacies of his presidency, the agreement that paved the way for China to become the economic powerhouse it is today.

 

Similarly, Ronald Reagan was declared politically dead in early 1987, amid the Iran-Contra scandal. Yet over the following two years, through his diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev and his success in winning passage of the START Treaty, Reagan gave a powerful boost to the Soviet leader that was (by Gorbachev’s own account) crucial in giving him the stature and space to proceed with his own reform program in the Soviet Union.

 

Franklin Roosevelt reached his low point early in his second term, too, with his failed proposal court-packing plan to enlarge the Supreme Court – before going on to lead the United States through World War II.

 

Even George W. Bush, weakened by the response to Hurricane Katrina, was able in his final two years to push through a surge in troops to Iraq, over the opposition of the Democrats in Congress, and a TARP agreement, over strong protests from congressional Republicans.

 

All this history should cause us to view with skepticism (if not outright ridicule) the suggestions in recent weeks that Barack Obama’s presidency is over because of the problem-filled rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Whatever one’s views of Obama, this is simply wrong. It reflects a series of misperceptions of the way our political system works, particularly in foreign policy.

 

First, of course, public-opinion polls change. The media that proclaim a president’s “death” one year could well be writing of the same president’s equally-fictitious “rebirth” a year or two later. This was certainly true in Reagan’s case.

 

Second, even if the polls don’t change, presidents can get things done in foreign policy anyway. The president’s authority rests not on the polls, but on his constitutional powers as chief executive and as commander-in-chief. He can accomplish lots of things on his own, and others by getting agreements through Congress, even despite his own unpopularity. That was the case with Clinton getting China into the WTO. Similarly, Reagan got the START Treaty through the Senate in 2007, even though most of the Republicans lining up for the presidential primaries were campaigning against it.

 

The China-WTO case also illustrates another point: Sometimes, unpopular presidents can win approval for historic changes because what they ask Congress to is no longer perceived as controversial, or because the implications are not fully grasped at the time. By 2000, approving China’s permanent entry into the WTO was no longer a front-burner issue, because Congress was weary of nearly a decade of battles over China’s trade status.  

 

So history shows Obama is not even dead in dealing with Congress, much less in his ability to make foreign policy without congressional approval.

 

We can expect that increasingly, over the next three years, the nation’s news media will turn attention away from the White House and towards the guessing-games for 2016, treating Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie as exciting subjects and Obama as old-hat and boring.

 

 But for those who are seriously interested in policy or history, much of the Obama presidency, for better or worse, is still to come.

 

One of the enduring features of American political history is the phenomenon that second-term presidents are declared to be dead or finished long before they actually are -- and that some of the most important actions in the field of foreign policy come near the end of their terms.

 

Bill Clinton’s presidency was said to be over in 1998, at the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Yet it was not until two years later that he won congressional approval for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. That was one of the most enduring legacies of his presidency, the agreement that paved the way for China to become the economic powerhouse it is today.

 

Similarly, Ronald Reagan was declared politically dead in early 1987, amid the Iran-Contra scandal. Yet over the following two years, through his diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev and his success in winning passage of the START Treaty, Reagan gave a powerful boost to the Soviet leader that was (by Gorbachev’s own account) crucial in giving him the stature and space to proceed with his own reform program in the Soviet Union.

 

Franklin Roosevelt reached his low point early in his second term, too, with his failed proposal court-packing plan to enlarge the Supreme Court – before going on to lead the United States through World War II.

 

Even George W. Bush, weakened by the response to Hurricane Katrina, was able in his final two years to push through a surge in troops to Iraq, over the opposition of the Democrats in Congress, and a TARP agreement, over strong protests from congressional Republicans.

 

All this history should cause us to view with skepticism (if not outright ridicule) the suggestions in recent weeks that Barack Obama’s presidency is over because of the problem-filled rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Whatever one’s views of Obama, this is simply wrong. It reflects a series of misperceptions of the way our political system works, particularly in foreign policy.

 

First, of course, public-opinion polls change. The media that proclaim a president’s “death” one year could well be writing of the same president’s equally-fictitious “rebirth” a year or two later. This was certainly true in Reagan’s case.

 

Second, even if the polls don’t change, presidents can get things done in foreign policy anyway. The president’s authority rests not on the polls, but on his constitutional powers as chief executive and as commander-in-chief. He can accomplish lots of things on his own, and others by getting agreements through Congress, even despite his own unpopularity. That was the case with Clinton getting China into the WTO. Similarly, Reagan got the START Treaty through the Senate in 2007, even though most of the Republicans lining up for the presidential primaries were campaigning against it.

 

The China-WTO case also illustrates another point: Sometimes, unpopular presidents can win approval for historic changes because what they ask Congress to is no longer perceived as controversial, or because the implications are not fully grasped at the time. By 2000, approving China’s permanent entry into the WTO was no longer a front-burner issue, because Congress was weary of nearly a decade of battles over China’s trade status.  

 

So history shows Obama is not even dead in dealing with Congress, much less in his ability to make foreign policy without congressional approval.

 

We can expect that increasingly, over the next three years, the nation’s news media will turn attention away from the White House and towards the guessing-games for 2016, treating Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie as exciting subjects and Obama as old-hat and boring.

 

 But for those who are seriously interested in policy or history, much of the Obama presidency, for better or worse, is still to come.

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The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
The Johns Hopkins University

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