Disillusionment with Washington has rarely run higher. Congress is unable to act even in areas where there is widespread agreement that measures are necessary, such as immigration, infrastructure spending and business tax reform. The Obama administration, rightly or wrongly, is increasingly condemned as ineffectual. What was once a flood of extraordinarily talented people eager to go into government has shrunk to a trickle, and many crucial positions remain unfilled for months or even years. Bipartisan compromise seems inconceivable on profoundly important long-term challenges such as climate change, national security strategy and the need to strengthen entitlement programs in a fiscally responsible way.
It is tempting and, surely to some limited extent, right to blame all this on a failure of leadership by top policymakers. And structural factors such as increased polarization of the electorate and the ever-growing role of money in politics surely contribute.
Yet it is worth putting current concerns in the context of a stunning American political regularity. Second presidential terms are almost without exception very difficult for the president and his team, for the government and for the country. Consider the history:
• George W. Bush’s second term began with a futile effort to reform Social Security and was then defined by the debacle of Hurricane Katrina and the nation’s plunge into financial crisis. His most significant policy steps — large structural tax cuts, redefinition of the federal role in education, the introduction of prescription drug benefits to Medicare and reorientation of national security strategy toward the threat of terrorism — all took place during his first term.
• Bill Clinton’s second term will be remembered for scandal and his impeachment by the House. His most important legislative accomplishments — such as major moves to balance the budget, reforming welfare to support work rather than dependency, expansion of health insurance benefits — took place in his first term.
• Ronald Reagan’s second term was marked by the Iran-contra scandal and a sense of a president who had become remote from much of the work of his administration. While the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was important, his most significant legacies — big tax and spending cuts, deregulation and a major defense buildup — largely occurred during his first term.
• Richard Nixon’s second term was not completed because of his resignation over Watergate. The most important policy measures of his administration — the opening to China, withdrawal from Vietnam, the establishment of a major federal role in environmental and other forms of regulation — took place in his first term.
• Dwight Eisenhower’s second term involved the resignation of his chief of staff and, more important, a growing perception that the country was suffering from a stifling complacency. It is hard to point to anything to compare to first-term accomplishments such as the withdrawal from Korea and initiation of the interstate highway system.
• Harry Truman’s second term was marked by the Korean War, scandal, gridlock and extraordinarily low public approval. His important legacies — the Marshall Plan, the containment strategy, the postwar focus on strengthening the economy with measures such as the G.I. Bill and federal housing support — were products of his first term.
• Franklin Roosevelt’s second term was the least successful part of his presidency, as it saw the failure of his effort to pack the Supreme Court and a major economic relapse in 1938 and no accomplishment remotely comparable to the New Deal or his wartime leadership.
And second terms have what may well be a substantial added cost. A large part of what presidents do during their first terms, particularly in the latter half, is directed at securing re-election rather than any longer-term objective.
Would U.S. government function better if presidents were limited to one term, perhaps of six years? The unfortunate, bipartisan experience with second terms suggests the issue is worthy of debate. The historical record helps makes the case for change.
The reason why the record is not dispositive, however, is suggested by the term “lame duck.” As the phrase suggests, leaders nearing the end of their time in office lose the ability to influence other actors by offering future rewards and punishments or by making deals where they commit to future actions. If this is the main reason why second terms are difficult, then removing the possibility of re-election could simply pull the problems forward into first terms.
This is the reason why many scholars regard the current constitutional limit of two presidential terms as problematic. However, reviewing the fairly dismal experience of second terms, my guess is that problems caused by lame-duck effects are much smaller than those caused by a toxic combination of hubris and exhaustion after the extraordinary effort that a president and his team must exert to achieve re-election. But the issue requires much more study and debate.
The belief that this time will be different usually precedes trouble, and so it has been with second terms. On the night of their re-election, all re-elected presidents expect to beat the second-term curse. At least since the Civil War, none has. And we have been governed by re-elected presidents for close about 40 percent of the last century. National reflection on reform is overdue.
Lawrence Summers is a professor at and past president of Harvard University. He was Treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001 and economic adviser to President Obama from 2009 through 2010. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.