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US Presidents Often Face 'Second Term Blues'


Some Republicans in Congress say they may distance themselves from President Bush as they prepare for next year's midterm congressional elections. Mr. Bush has suffered a number of political setbacks of late and his public approval ratings are the lowest of his presidency.

Historians call the phenomenon second term blues, the tendency for re-elected presidents to run into political trouble in their second terms.

Each of the last three presidents to win re-election faced serious problems in their second terms.

Bill Clinton was impeached by Congress for lying about his sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He was able to finish out his second term after being acquitted in the Senate.

Ronald Reagan saw his public approval ratings plummet in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the United States sold arms to Iran to win the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon and then diverted some of the profits to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.


Mr. Reagan was able to recover somewhat late in his second term and left office fairly popular.

The most disastrous example of second term blues involves Richard Nixon. After winning re-election in one of the largest landslides in history in 1972, Mr. Nixon became the only president ever forced to resign from office because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal two years later.

Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says there are several reasons why modern presidents seem to run into trouble in their second term.

"Re-elected presidents have a lot of hubris, swagger as President Bush would say," he noted. "They do not have as much energy around their White Houses because it is brutal work and after you have been through a campaign there is a sag. They have trouble generating new ideas when it is a vote for the status quo. They all end up with scandal of one sort or another."

In the case of President Bush, a number of Republicans and Democrats suggest it might be time to make some staff changes in hopes of injecting new energy into the administration.

John Fortier is a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a recent guest on VOA's Encounter program.

"At low points of their presidency, they [other presidents] brought in some new blood. Reagan famously brought in Howard Baker, the majority leader of the Senate after the Iran-Contra scandal really hurt him," he explained. "President Clinton had Leon Panetta in his White House, but brought him in as chief of staff at a low point [in his presidency] after the mid-term elections that he did so badly in in 1994."

Some experts also suggest that President Bush should alter his approach to governing, reach out more to opposition Democrats and pay less attention to trying to please his conservative Republican base.

"Reagan made serious changes in the management of his presidency to reflect the fact that the second term was different and to deal with the reality of the aftermath of the scandal of Iran-Contra," said political analyst Norman Ornstein. "President Bush has to step back and completely rethink how he is going to govern in his second term, which is going to have to be different from the first term."

President Bush's low public approval rating can be traced to many factors. They include growing public concern over U.S. casualties in Iraq, high fuel prices at home, the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina, the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers and the perjury indictment of former vice presidential aide Lewis Libby in the CIA leak case.

But Mr. Bush still has three years left in his presidency and many analysts believe there is plenty of time for him to reverse the political momentum.

Stuart Rothenberg publishes an independent political newsletter in Washington. He recently told VOA's Encounter program that the success of President Bush's second term will likely hinge on what happens in Iraq.

"And I really think Iraq continues to be a defining situation that has hurt him in other areas and undercut his strength with the American public," he explained. "I think that is going to decide how his presidency is viewed in five or 10 years, exactly how that situation develops over the next few years."

Democrats point to recent victories in governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey as evidence that the president's low public approval ratings are beginning to drag down Republican candidates.

Republicans dismiss that notion, arguing that local issues decided those races and that the president has nowhere to go but up in the polls between now and the 2006 congressional elections.

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