Bush’s Second-Term Blues

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

May 1, 2007

The middle of a second-term in office is notoriously difficult for US presidents. To take just some more recent cases, in Dwight Eisenhower’s sixth year in the White House, 1958, the country suffered a stock market crash and its worst recession since World War II. His chief of staff, Sherman Adams, was caught up in a corruption scandal, the tainted Republicans were creamed at the mid-term elections, and Democrats took the White House back in 1960. For the next two-term president it was even worse. In 1973-1974, Richard Nixon presided over an oil crisis, a recession, a failure in Vietnam, and Congressional election catastrophe before finally resigning in disgrace over Watergate.

 The middle of Ronald Reagan’s second term, in 1986, saw the Iran-Contra scandal, a farce in which the United States secretly sold weapons to Iran in order to fund anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, and which led to a perjury indictment of Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger.The scandal helped to put control of Congress in Democratic hands. Most recently, after an easy re-election in 1996, Bill Clinton’s second-term was marred by the Monica Lewinsky scandal that broke in early 1998 and was followed later that year by the president’s impeachment by the Senate.

Knowing that he has such extensive company will be of little comfort to George W. Bush as he contemplates the bloodied political landscape of his own second-term. For if Bush’s recent difficulties have not exactly reached Nixonian levels, he is certainly climbing the charts ranking presidents who have suffered second-term blues. Last November, Bush lost majorities in both houses of Congress, and now for the first time must try to govern without a docile legislative branch. As a result, having vetoed only one bill in his first six years in office, Bush now faces no fewer than 16 pieces of pending legislation that he opposes.Congress is now also using one of its most important powers—the power of subpoena and investigation—and is holding hearings on everything from Bush’s judicial practices to the management of the Iraq war. The president’s national approval rating has fallen to just 35 percent, and veteran conservative columnist Robert Novak now says that in fifty years of following politics he has never seen a president as isolated from his own party in Congress.

The second-term scandals have also begun to set in. In March 2007,Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby was convicted for lying and obstructing justice in an investigation into who leaked the name of the former CIA operative Valerie Plame—revealing just how far the administration was prepared to go to sell its faulty case for the Iraq war. Later that same month, it was revealed that the Justice Department had fired eight US attorneys, ostensibly for incompetence. Some critics alleged that the real reason was to put more ideological Bush loyalists in place—or accelerate potential investigations of Democrats. But the greater problem for the administration was the perception that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had misled Congress about his role in the firings. Even many prominent Republicans called for his resignation. Equally damaging for his reputation was the revelation around the same time that the FBI had been abusing a provision in the 2002 Patriot Act that enabled it to secretly investigate US citizens, examine their personal records, and prevent them from talking about it. Again, many Republicans were as outraged as Democrats over the lack of administration oversight.

Bush even finds himself facing a challenge to his presidential authority over foreign policy. Both houses of Congress have now passed bills calling for a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by the end of 2008. Despite widespread public opposition to the war, Bush vows to veto such bills, leading Congressional Democrats, in turn, to threaten to cut off funding for the war if Bush does so. In April 2007, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi infuriated the White House by leading a delegation to Syria, explaining that “elections have consequences” and that she refused to leave foreign policy uniquely in the hands of an unpopular executive branch.

Can Bush possibly emerge from this morass? He might take some comfort from the fact that history ended up treating Eisenhower very kindly,while Reagan and Clinton both recovered from their mid-second-term lows and ended their administrations with major accomplishments and recovered popularity ratings. But I don’t know anyone, Republicans included,who thinks Bush’s problems are temporary, and that recovery may be around the corner. That’s sad news, for though we may already be obsessed with the next presidential race, this administration still has 20 long months to go.