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President Obama and the ‘curse of the second term’

It is not inevitable that President Obama’s second term will be as arid politically and legislatively as Bush’s second term

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

President Obama and his eloquent speech at the memorial of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg were greeted with the enthusiasm and approval befitting his large popularity in South Africa.

But, upon his return home, Obama received a cold reality check in the form of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing that his overall approval has sunk to 43 percent, with 54 percent of Americans saying that they disapprove of his performance and only 37 percent giving him high marks for being an honest president. Half of those polled said they are either “disappointed” or “dissatisfied” with the president, versus 28 percent who indicated that they are “proud” or “satisfied” with his job.

What is particularly troubling for the president is that his signal achievement the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) only 34 percent of those polled believes the health law is a good idea, while 50 percent see it as a bad idea. These poor numbers ominously resemble the drop in job approval of President George W. Bush following his disastrous handling of Hurricane Katrina.

Most reelected presidents, particularly since the Second World War, face in their second term what some commentators call “the curse of the second term.” The “curse” could be a personal and/or personnel scandal, a disastrous and unpopular war (The curse that dogged Truman in Korea, Nixon in Vietnam, Bush in Iraq), a debilitating economic crisis, a calamity caused by nature, corruption spawned by complacency, the arrogance of overreach and for some unlucky ones a combination of some of the above. If you google ‘the curse of the second term’ you will end up with more than 4 million results. Even president Obama is aware of the pitfalls of “second term overreach.”

A myth or exaggerated?

Of course there is nothing inevitable about the curse of the second term, and some historian do speak of “the myth of the second term curse” while others say the curse is exaggerated. But most of those 21 American presidents who served a second term encountered many woes and fell victims to the curse, although some of them found the cure and lived to finish their second term without lasting damage to their legacy, as was the case with Ronald Reagan. Of course some presidents, because of their smarts and/or luck, succeed in developing an immune system against the curse, and finish their second term without succumbing to it. Dwight Eisenhower was the last president to do so.

It is not inevitable that President Obama’s second term will be as arid politically and legislatively as Bush’s second term

Hisham Melhem

Since the 1960s no American president managed to evade the curse in his second term. Richard Nixon was forced to resign when he realized that he will be impeached because of his violations of the constitution in the cover up of the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan’s curse was called ‘Iran-Contra,’ which involved serious violations of American laws by secretly selling arms to Iran then using the proceeds to fund Nicaraguan Contras. Bill Clinton’s second term curse was his affair with the intern Monica Lewinsky which led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives. George W. Bush was one of those unlucky presidents since his second term was marred by multiple curses: grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a devastating economic recession, the worst since the Great Depression and Hurricane Katrina. The combination of these curses gave Bush an average second-term approval rating of 37 percent.

Obamacare disaster

The disastrous Obamacare rollout in October, and the fact that the president’s forceful assurances that “If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what.” was demonstrably false, has been devastating to Obama’s standing, and led some to call the health law ‘Obama’s second term curse’. Comparisons were made between the incompetent way in which Bush dealt with Katrina, and the amateurish bungling of the Obamacare rollout.

The comparison is exaggerated but it contains more than a kernel of truth. Yet it is too early to render a final judgment on whether Obamacare is the president’s second term curse, because he still has three years in office, and part of the problem is technical and will be fixed. But there is no doubt that the Obama administration’s mismanagement of the president’s most important legislation has had a humbling effect on the president who was forced to perform his own version of chest-beating mea-culpa in his first press conference following the embarrassing rollout of Obamacare.

Still, Obama’s biggest problem transcends whether he is suffering from a given curse, and touches on his leadership style, his tendency to retreat and compromise when he is subjected to unyielding pressure and his proclivity to avoid decisive action. This is true in Obama’s dealing with his domestic Republican opposition in congress as well as with his disastrous handling of the Syrian conflict.

It is not inevitable that President Obama’s second term will be as arid politically and legislatively as Bush’s second term, and that he may very well recoup, or be saved by a potentially surging economy similar to the one that allowed Clinton to finish his second term basking in the glory of economic boom and budget surplus. However, that window for Obama is shrinking with each passing day, given the mid-term elections next November, and a predatory Republican House sniffing the blood of a wounded president, and circling around him to pounce at the right moment. Will Obama’s future be similar to Clinton’s or to George W’s? That is the question.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on Dec. 12, 2013.

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Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem




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