The blogosphere practically exploded over President Obama’s admission to his outgoing Russian counterpart that he could easily make a deal on missile defense once this whole pesky election thing was out of the way (ABC via Weekly Standard, emphasis added):
President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
From one angle, this simply confirms every worst fear about the president – once he is no longer accountable to the people, he will be free to impose his will on the country without limitation.
Clearly, that’s how he, himself, sees the situation, and that should give any voter considering his re-election pause.
However, it also reveals something else – just as important, in my view – his rather stunning ignorance of American history on the subject.
America has only had five presidents who by law were disallowed from seeking another term (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush*). If one considers the pre-FDR two term tradition as one solid enough to create the same impediment for a third term (and in the case of Ulysses Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, it wasn’t), one could add Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, and Wilson to the list.
Nearly all of these twelve presidents began their second term with roughly the same sense of energy and optimism that Obama would (Madison is the exception, having been re-elected in the midst of the disastrous War of 1812). Nearly all (Madison excepted again) took their re-election as a mandate to establish their vision of America as permanent American policy. All of them (including Madison) had their plans thoroughly wrecked by either the political opposition (in Lincoln’s case, fatally), maneuverings within their own party, or – the favorite fear of Harold MacMillan – events. To wit…
Jefferson took his re-election (which was arguably the most lopsided contested national result until 1964) as the mandate it really was, but the Napoleonic Wars dominated his second term, and led the champion of limited government to impose the most intrusive economic regulation this side of Obamacare (the Embargo Act).
Madison’s second term was almost completely dominated by the War of 1812, the end of which was known to Americans halfway through the term. The realities of war led him to some dramatic flip-flops, such as pushing Congress to bring back the Bank of the United States just five years after he let its charter expire in 1811.
Monroe, whose supporters actually needed to find an elector willing to vote against him to preserve the uniqueness of Washington’s unanimous elections, began his Administration as the political master of the universe, and ended it with the Jeffersonian Republicans blasted to factional pieces.
Jackson, whose re-election in 1832 was arguably the most policy-driven campaign since 1800, was actually censured by the Senate in his second term, forced by southerners to restrict freedom of speech via mail, and – by historian Sean Wilentz’s account – watched his hard-money policy go up in smoke at the hands of Whigs and state-bank-backed Democrats, even as the BUS charter expired in 1836.
Cleveland’s plans for his second term (which came in a revenge election, dethroning the man who defeated his own re-election plans four years earlier) were laid waste by the Panic of 1893. By 1896 his own party had abandoned him, and most of his supporters quietly backed the Republicans.
Wilson, elected in 1912 due largely to Teddy Roosevelt’s hubris and driven almost entirely by a vision of dramatic domestic reform, saw his second term literally explode in World War I – a war he loudly and categorically opposed in his re-election campaign (his slogan: “He kept us out of war”). In one of the bizarre ironies of history, the rickety, overarching, nearly-collapsed-under-its-own-weight rationale Wilson threw together in desperation to explain his switcheroo became the basis for international diplomacy. Except that would be a generation later. Wilson himself saw the American people completely reject his “vision”, first with the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, and then with the Harding landslide of 1920.
Even FDR’s second term was a complete mess (before Hitler invaded Poland, Bob Taft was running even with FDR in election polls, and incumbents in that position are always in deep trouble). TR would have gone down in history as the Panic of 1907 president had J.P. Morgan not bailed out the country. Grant’s triumphant re-election actually left him weaker politically as party factions maneuvered under him. Finally, Washington himself – the creator of the two-term tradition – probably came up with it after realizing his effort to be the nonpartisan national leader had collapsed in reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion and the Jay Treaty (Washington gave up trying in 1796, endorsing John Adams and essentially declaring himself a Federalist).
Now, one could say that tradition is one thing, while the law is another, and that the imposed and certain liberation of having to go to the voters can change things. There’s only one problem with that logic: it didn’t.
Dwight Eisenhower was the first president blessed with the “no more elections” freedom. His second term was dominated by Sputnik hysteria and the first clamors for civil rights, neither of which was on his radar (unlike most 1950s-era Republicans, Ike cared little about civil rights, and was largely pushed into it by southern intransigence on the one hand and the latent Nixon-1960 campaign pushing him to do more on the other). He actually wanted to remake the Republican Party entirely in his image – which the party (led again, quietly, by Nixon) almost completely rejected.
Nixon himself was thoroughly emasculated by Watergate, which consumed his second term before it even began. The Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War were seen more as a sign of weakness then strength, and the guarantees he made to protect South Vietnam were thoroughly rejected by Congress. Nixon’s “detente” foreign policy with the Soviets, meanwhile, was savaged even by left-wing Democrats (who bashed it as a way to temporarily re-enter into the anti-Communist consensus). No Republican aspirant for President in 1976 would even touch it (Ford himself refused to mention it even though he was still employing co-architect Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State).
One could argue the Ronald Reagan had the most successful second term of just about any President; however, that was mainly reaping rewards from the hard choices of the first term. The rapid defense buildup of the early 1980s actually went into reverse during the second term (not by Reagan’s choice); Congress imposed trade sanctions against South Africa over Reagan’s veto; aid to the Nicaraguan anti-Communist resistance practically dried up (leading in part to the Iran-Contra fiasco); and by 1988, a majority of his own party’s candidates for president opposed his signature arms-control treaty (the INF treaty).
Finally, whatever plans Bill Clinton may have had for his second term, a Republican Congress made sure he almost never mentioned them. Instead, government spending as a percentage of GDP went down, and on foreign policy, Clinton was forced into reactions by the UN, Saddam Hussein, and Congressional Republicans. His one success came in Bosnia, largely because the Serbian opposition used the war as an opportunity to challenge and dethrone Slobodan Milosevic – which was not a part of Clinton’s plan. What were in his plans – namely, Kyoto and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – were summarily rejected by Congress.
Bush the Younger used his inauguration to dramatically lay down foreign policy marker for the Wahhabist-Ba’athist-Khomeinist War. By the end of 2005, the reaction to Hurricane Katrina and events in Iraq weakened him so much politically it took all his political capital just to save the latter (during this time, Afghanistan began its own deterioration). By the end of his term, Bush was talking about destroying the free market to save it (TARP), and nearly all the political energy for the WBK War had evaporated.
In other words, a president doesn’t quite have the free hand in his second term as is generally believed. Even in foreign policy, Congress can be much more powerful than even they realize, and events can completely upend a president’s actions. An Iranian ICBM test could lead Congress to force SDI funding down the president’s throat – and while Obama himself might be more than willing to veto a defense bill to stop SDI, the numerous Democrats running to succeed him would probably run for cover, jeopardizing his position substantially. Moreover, as the Clinton (and Wilson) treaty problems reveal, any actual agreement to stop SDI would run into serious trouble.
So, while Obama’s comments say quite a bit about him, they say little about his prospects for “flexibility” in a second term . . . assuming he even gets one.
Cross-posted to Bearing Drift
* Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman were eligible for another term in 1968 and 1952, respectively. Johnson actually won the New Hampshire primary, but faced certain defeat in Wisconsin, and chose not to tun again. Truman, facing certain defeat in New Hampshire, also pulled out of the race in early 1952.