The dubious honor of a second term

October 26, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- Amid all his current troubles, President Bush probably has not spent much time contemplating the wisdom of James K. Polk. But had he engaged in that uncommon pastime a couple of years ago, he wouldn't have all these troubles.

President Polk, elected in 1844, had an eminently successful first term, achieving all of the four goals he had set out when he arrived in the White House: reducing tariffs, creating an independent treasury, settling a dispute with Britain over the Oregon boundary and acquiring California from Mexico. He also did something else he had promised: He left office after just one term.

George Washington established the tradition, since written into the Constitution, that presidents should gracefully step down after two terms. Mr. Bush might wish that Mr. Polk's voluntary departure after four years had become the norm long before 2004. Then, instead of having his ranch vacation interrupted when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Mr. Bush could have done what a lot of his countrymen did in the following days: sit in front of the TV watching the mess unfold, expressing disbelief and blaming the president for everything that went wrong.

But Mr. Bush did what incumbent presidents almost always do: seek re-election. He did so even though there were plenty of gaping potholes visible in the road ahead, from the swollen budget deficit to the insurgency in Iraq. And he did so despite the clear lesson of history, which is that second terms are almost always unsuccessful.

Re-election tends to breed hubris, and pride, as the Bible attests, goeth just before you step on a banana peel. Two days after defeating Sen. John Kerry, Mr. Bush was riding high at a news conference where he vowed to reform Social Security, curb "frivolous lawsuits" and overhaul the tax code. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it," he declared. "I've got the will of the people at my back."

But the will of the people, like the October wind, can shift without notice. It's hard to remember how formidable Mr. Bush and his party looked when he took the oath of office nine months ago. Since then, not much has gone right. His Social Security plan went nowhere. The Iraq insurgency shows no signs of weakening. The climate for tax reform looks frosty.

All that was before Katrina, which made Mr. Bush look inept and, incidentally, destroyed any hope of bringing the budget under control. Then there's the Valerie Plame case, which could end with some senior White House officials moving to a different executive branch building - one operated by the Bureau of Prisons.

About the only recent triumph was the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court, which gave Mr. Bush the chance to keep his pledge to appoint justices "who are qualified to hold the bench." But he undid much of that good by proposing to fill the subsequent vacancy with Harriet Miers, whose qualifications are, well, less obvious than were Judge Roberts'. Mr. Bush has always had enemies, but now, even his friends don't like him.

Second terms often follow this dismal pattern: Franklin D. Roosevelt had his court-packing debacle, Dwight Eisenhower had a White House scandal, Richard Nixon had Watergate and Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky.

Mr. Bush is struggling with some basic realities that go with the office. One is that being the most powerful person on Earth tends to go to one's head after a while, particularly when it's combined with a second vote of confidence from the American people. This, unfortunately, often happens just about the time the American people start to grow bored and irritable from seeing the same face on the news every night.

He could have avoided all this had he decided late in his first term to announce that, having set the nation on the right course, he would be content to return to private life. Then he could have left intractable headaches such as Iraq, the budget and the approaching plague of tropical storms for someone else to suffer. And he could have claimed one of the best jobs in the world: ex-president.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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