Nick Sheppard: Second terms are even tougher

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If Barack Obama is re-elected as President, and completes his time, he will be in a rare league indeed.

Former President Bill Clinton. Photo / AP
Former President Bill Clinton. Photo / AP

On the fourth of March 1825, the fifth President of the United States, James Monroe, a fighter in the Revolutionary War, and the last President who was a founding father, departed the White House, retiring happily to Oak Hill Virginia, and the life of a country gentleman.

Monroe had completed his second term as President. His predecessor, James Madison, had also completed two terms, as had Thomas Jefferson before him. It was probably quite conceivable to these men, their contemporaries in the political class, and the electorate, that, perhaps in their lifetime, another three occupants of the White House would succeed each other, each having completed two terms. The reality is, after almost two centuries, it has never happened. Only the second most recent President, George W. Bush, has followed on from his predecessor in merely serving two full terms. But, in three weeks or so, this may change. If Barack Obama is re-elected, and were to complete his second term, it will be only the second time in history that three Presidents in a row have served two terms. If Barack Obama were to leave office in January of 2017, it would be just over 190 years since Monroe left the White House.

We've become somewhat accustomed to two-term presidencies. Reagan, then a single term of George H. W. Bush, then two terms of Clinton and George W. Bush; but in the overall history of the office, this is quite unusual. The reality is, two terms are rare; there have only been 16 Presidents elected twice: Washington; Jefferson; Madison; Monroe; Jackson; Lincoln; Grant; Cleveland; McKinley; Wilson; Roosevelt; Eisenhower; Nixon; Reagan; Clinton and Bush. Of those, only 13 completed both terms: Lincoln and McKinley were assassinated and Nixon resigned. There were also four Presidents who were elected to a second term, but hadn't been elected to the first: Theodore Roosevelt; Calvin Coolidge; Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. So, only slightly more than a quarter of the Presidents of the United States have served two full terms. (Bearing in mind Roosevelt outlasted everyone else by some distance).

After Monroe's departure, John Quincy Adams lasted only one term, was followed by Jackson; then things got fairly bleak: a succession of single-term and fragmentary presidencies. There wouldn't be another two-term President for nearly 30 years, (Lincoln) and not another President to complete two terms for 40 years, (Grant). After that, there was the one-off scenario of Grover Cleveland, who was President for two non-consecutive terms, then Wilson, about a quarter of a century later. Another quarter of a century later, Franklin Roosevelt was elected four times, serving three full terms. Truman took over when Roosevelt passed on, then completed a term of his own, and was followed by Eisenhower, who served two full terms. After this, however, there were another 20 years of interrupted, fragmentary and single-term presidencies as incumbents were assassinated, resigned, filled up the remaining time of their predecessors or simply performed poorly. Finally, in 1980, the modern era of majority two-term presidencies began. Given this historical context, the fact we had two completed terms of Bill Clinton, followed by two full terms of George W. Bush, is quite remarkable. The looming prospect of a third two-term presidency in a row is extraordinary. In a time when partisan division is so extreme that trust in institutions - the media, the Supreme Court, Congress - are at, or near, their lowest levels it is surprising that the American people have been leaning toward the continuity of incumbency in recent years.

Beneath this surface, however, the counter-narrative of partisan division is clearly visible. Over the course of the last 100 years, emphatic electoral victories were common and close contests, (1948, 1960, 1968 and 1976), the exception. While the pattern of incumbency seems to have settled somewhat, the elections themselves have become more roiled and closely contested: there has been nothing close to a proper landslide since 1988. In all of the landslides from 1928 onward, the victor managed well over400, and often more than 500 Electoral College votes. Since 1988, neither party has managed more than 400. That certainly isn't going to change in the coming election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

The final thing about second terms is, well, they usually suck. Lincoln went to the theatre. Grant's presidency became ever-more morally destitute as cronies swindled him and exploited the apparatus of government for their own crooked ends. Early in his second term, McKinley encountered an anarchist concealing a gun in a handkerchief. Wilson, in his second term, suffered a near-incapacitating stroke, leaving him paralysed on one side and blind in one eye. Lyndon Johnson had the Vietnam War. Nixon had a break-in at the Watergate building. Reagan, in his second term, professed ignorance over the matter of the use of proceeds from covert arms sales to Iran being used to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, a scandal that eventuated in 14 indictments within Reagan's staff and 11 convictions. There was also the small matter of 500 points being wiped off the Dow Jones in a single afternoon. Bill Clinton met a young intern named Monica. George W. Bush, in his second term, observed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina from the window of a plane, couldn't find any weapons of mass destruction, and watched the entire economy go into freefall.

President Obama is still the favourite to win the election. But, given this second-term pattern and the implications, you almost have to wonder if he lost the first debate to Mitt Romney on purpose.

Nick Sheppard is a political commentator and author of the novel The All Black. He lives in Auckland.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

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