Why would any president want a second term?

April 13, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- Calvin Coolidge was probably not the smartest president this country has ever had, but he once composed a statement that in retrospect can only be described as brilliant: "I do not choose to run for president in 1928."

If he had been re-elected, he would have presided over the market crash of 1929, to his eternal discredit. Instead, the shantytowns of jobless people that sprung up during the Great Depression were called, in honor of his successor, Hoovervilles.

But presidents refuse to learn from Mr. Coolidge's example. About the only thing that can prevent a president from running for re-election is the certainty of losing. George W. Bush is the latest to put in his bid for a second term, even though making a second term successful is about as easy as making a soufflM-i rise twice.

Few presidents have enhanced their stature in their second term, and many have blown their reputations to bits.

Bill Clinton would be remembered with far less controversy had he stepped down in 1996, with the nation at peace, the economy healthy and the federal budget deficit well on the way to erasure. Instead, he stuck around for the pleasure of having his sex life dissected in public and becoming the second president ever to be impeached.

Disgrace is a recurring theme of second terms. Ronald Reagan achieved the bulk of his economic program and defense buildup in his first four years, leaving much of his remaining time for the Iran-Contra scandal -- which involved the secret sale of weapons to Iran, with the proceeds going to rebels fighting the Marxist government of Nicaragua.

Richard Nixon, of course, had Watergate -- which erupted because his aides mounted a break-in at the Democratic National Committee office in a crazed effort to ensure his, yes, re-election. He found that winning a second term doesn't guarantee you'll complete it.

But even presidents who don't embarrass themselves rarely do much to distinguish themselves, either. Dwight Eisenhower's first term gave him the opportunity to end the Korean War. His second term allowed him to enjoy a recession, the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik and a scandal involving his chief of staff.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is remembered as a great president today not so much because of what he accomplished in his second term but what he accomplished in his third and fourth -- reviving the economy and winning World War II.

Anyone presuming to hang around for that long can expect voter affection to cool. As presidential historian Richard Norton Smith asks, "How many TV sitcoms last eight years?"

Long-serving presidents face other traps. One is that they rarely have any particular vision for their second term. They ask to be re-elected mainly to complete the goals they've already begun, which often begin to look irrelevant after five or six years.

That contributes to another obstacle, in the form of Congress. Midterm elections in the second term generally bring big losses for the incumbent president's party, which means the final two years are often devoted to fruitless bickering between the executive and legislative branches.

But George W. Bush apparently looks forward to spending the next four years grappling with a swollen budget deficit and an impossible situation in Iraq. And John Kerry is not expected to emulate James K. Polk, who, in accepting the 1844 Democratic presidential nomination, pledged to serve only one term.

There's something to be said for leaving too early rather than too late. But it's a rare president who has the wisdom of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's mother in the musical Gypsy. Her advice to her daughter: "Make them beg for more -- and then don't give it to them."

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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