Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > The Reputation of Presidents Takes a Hit in Their Second Term

Oct 3, 2022

The Reputation of Presidents Takes a Hit in Their Second Term

tags: presidential history

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

America has had 15 presidents who have won reelection, one out of every three chief executives.

The thought of running for reelection motivates all presidents, but the historical record demonstrates that with the exception of James Monroe (The Era of Good Feelings), Abraham Lincoln (assassinated six weeks into his second term), and William McKinley (also assassinated six months into his second term), being reelected to the Presidency has been a disappointment, and has affected the overall historical reputation of the individual presidents. So while the other 12 presidents had some second-term achievements, they also had a great deal of heartache and many setbacks.

George Washington’s second term (1793-1797) presented the internal uprising known as the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.  Washington also saw factional politics and political parties, which he vehemently opposed, becoming part of the American government. When Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1794 to form the Democratic-Republican Party, in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party, both domestic and foreign policy abandoned the unity that Washington had wished to continue.  The negotiation of the Jay Treaty, when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court traveled to the former “mother country” of Great Britain led to anger and division at home. Washington was even hanged in effigy, a shocking sign of bitter division over the treaty.  Additionally, Washington’s tough policy toward Citizen Edmund Genet and Citizen Pierre Adet, the ambassadors sent from France, created further division that fueled the bitterness of the presidential campaigns of 1796 and 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Thomas Jefferson’s second term (1805-1809) was complicated by warfare in Europe and on the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea between Napoleon Bonaparte’s France and Great Britain.  The American expectation of “freedom of the seas” in wartime led to crises between the United States and both nations, and the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair in 1807 led to the danger of direct warfare with Great Britain.  Instead, Jefferson promoted the Embargo Act of 1807, cutting off all trade with Europe and causing an economic depression which lasted until the inauguration of Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, in 1809.  Additionally, former Vice President Aaron Burr became the center of controversy when he was brought to trial for reported collusion with Spain to take away some of the US’s western territory.  Jefferson and Burr had been at odds since the disputed election of 1800, and Burr had been dropped as vice president for Jefferson’s second term.  Burr was brought to trial for treason, and found not guilty in a trial presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall, a cousin of Jefferson who had a totally different view of the Constitution. So the political controversy that erupted after the 1803 Supreme Court decision in Marbury v. Madison continued, and Jefferson left office under a cloud.

James Madison’s second term (1813-1817) witnessed the mostly disastrous War of 1812, with the White House and the US Capitol attacked by the British in the summer of 1814.  Madison was perceived as an ineffective wartime leader, and Federalist opposition held the Hartford Convention, which proposed anti-Southern measures including the threatened secession of the New England states.  Madison’s inconsistency about the National Bank and the protective tariff led to further division. Madison belatedly realized that the Federalist ideas of Alexander Hamilton made sense after the experience of the war, so he promoted the revival of the National Bank and the tariff in 1816 as he was getting ready to leave office. Certainly in historical perspective Madison’s influence over the Constitution was greater than as president.

Andrew Jackson’s second term (1833-1837) became highly controversial as he set out to destroy the Second National Bank.  He had to go through three Secretaries of the Treasury to accomplish this goal, which helped lead to the Specie Circular and the Panic of 1837 as he left office, damaging the political chances of his successor Martin Van Buren.  Jackson’s forced removal of five Indian tribes to Oklahoma (the Trail of Tears), was a horrendous violation of human rights, and his working to prevent abolitionists from sending their antislavery literature through the US Mail helped to besmirch his image as a spokesman for “the common man,” as he came across to principled Americans as a demagogue. He also faced the first recorded assassination threat in January 1835 at the US Capitol. Emotions were always high around Jackson, who came across as confrontational, and was regularly controversial in his utterances and his actions in office.

Ulysses S. Grant’s second term (1873-1877) included the Panic of 1873, as well as constant corruption and scandals involving appointees in various government agencies.  This included two Cabinet officers, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of Interior. Grant seemed naïve and clueless in many of his appointments and associations. The Republican Party lost the House of Representatives in the midterm elections of 1874, and the upcoming presidential election of 1876 resulted in the closest possible electoral vote result in American history. The negotiated Compromise of 1877 put popular vote loser Rutherford B. Hayes into the White House over Samuel Tilden.   Grant’s presidency would be viewed as the most corrupt until the regime of Warren G. Harding.

Woodrow Wilson’s second term (1917-1921), was a significant disappointment following the many domestic reforms of his first term. With America’s entrance into the First World War, Wilson showed a narrow minded, authoritarian bent, including a refusal to recognize the contributions to the war effort by African Americans and support for white supremacy. The expansion and formation of government agencies during the First World War threatened civil liberties during wartime and after. Wilson created the Committee on Public Information to control war information, and promote pro-war propaganda.  The military draft became highly controversial, and critics of the war, including Socialist Eugene Debs, were jailed. Debs was not released until President Warren G. Harding granted amnesty in 1921.  The Espionage Act of 1918 and the Sedition Act of 1918 criminalized antiwar activity.

Additionally, Wilson refused to work with the Republican opposition after they gained control of the Senate in the midterm elections of 1918.  Instead, he campaigned across the nation for the much criticized Versailles Treaty and membership in the League of Nations.  This led to to the tragic 1919 stroke that left him incapable of leadership, but Wilson refused to allow any knowledge of his medical condition to be given to Vice President Thomas Marshall.  While Wilson was incapacitated, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, authorized an attack on civil liberties, and what became known as the “Palmer Raids” anchored the first great “Red Scare” in modern America. Thousands of suspected radicals, socialists or Communists were denied the Writ of Habeas Corpus, and were detained for months in late 1919 and early 1920, an attack on the Bill of Rights that led to the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union.  Most of those arrested were freed without charges, but had lost their constitutional rights for a period of many months.  So Wilson had a tragic second term in office.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term (1937-1941) came off a massive, amazing landslide victory over Republican nominee Alf Landon in 1936, but was a major disappointment.  Unfortunately, FDR had a cocky, overly optimistic attitude, and decided to pursue massive change that repulsed even members of his own party.  First, he suggested “reorganization” of the Supreme Court, wanting six new appointments for each Justice on the Court who was over 70.  This caused a major split within Congress and drew the vehement opposition of Vice President John Nance Garner. The “Court Packing” scheme failed.  Then, FDR wanted to promote reorganization of the executive branch agencies, but ran into opposition from a Congress seeking to protect its prerogative of oversight of the executive branch.   He also tried to defeat southern members of the Democratic party in the House of Representatives in the 1938 midterm primaries. This effort, which came to be known as the “Purge,” only yielded one victory out of ten attempts to retire conservative members of Congress.

Additionally, the economy, which had been improving throughout Roosevelt’s first term, went into a new recession, leading to the loss of Democratic seats in Congress in 1938, after the party had gained seats in both 1934 and 1936. Foreign policy took over with the growing threat of Fascism in Europe and Asia in 1939 and the outbreak of World War II later that year. FDR had to fight tooth and nail for a repeal of portions of the Neutrality Acts he had reluctantly signed in the mid 1930s.  FDR wanted to promote a “Cash and Carry” policy under which friendly nations could purchase military goods from the United States, and won the battle by the end of 1939 at a great cost of lost supporters and suspicion of his intentions by a war-averse nation.  FDR also had to work very hard for the establishment of the Selective Service Act in 1940, and while running for a third term, promoted the Destroyers for Bases Deal with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  He contended that he wanted to keep America at peace, reflecting the power and influence of the isolationist organization, the America First Committee.  While FDR won a third term, he had to go through many battles and had been scarred by controversies in marked distinction to his first term in office.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term (1957-1961) was undermined by the Soviet Union’s successful launch in October 1957 of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth.  Sputnik started a rapid buildup to challenge the Russians in space. Notable initiatives included the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the promotion of math, science, and technology, through the National Defense Education Act of 1958, an action that should have begun before Sputnik became a crisis.  With the opposition Democrats in power in Congress, Eisenhower seemed less influential, and while he hosted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at Camp David, Maryland in 1959, the seeming “thaw” in the Cold War was broken by the U-2 Spy Plane Incident in May 1960.  An American spy pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was shot down over the Soviet Union, and displayed before the cameras by Khrushchev, after Eisenhower lied, claiming that the plane that went awry was a weather plane.  Khrushchev came to the United Nations, and denounced Eisenhower and the American government, pledging that the Russians would “bury” the United States.  He also visited with Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, who had come to the United Nations in New York City.  The second-term turn of the Cold War diminished Eisenhower’s reputation.

Ronald Reagan’s second term (1985-1989) saw the Democrats win both houses of Congress in 1986.  The Iran Contra Affair was a major scandal that besmirched his second term, with many believing Reagan should have faced impeachment.  Reagan embraced the apartheid policy of South Africa; his veto of antiapartheid legislation was overridden by a two thirds vote of both houses of Congress in 1986, a very rare occurrence historically and a significant rebuke of the president.  His nomination of the controversial Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987 failed, though he did place Anthony Kennedy on the court as an alternate.  His response to the AIDS epidemic seemed weak and uncaring to many, as Reagan was slow to acknowledge the crisis until his actor friend Rock Hudson and the young hemophiliac Ryan White became publicly prominent victims of the disease.  His drug policy was extremely harsh toward people of color, causing great controversy.  

It was also speculated that Reagan might be showing signs of dementia, possibly related to being shot by John Hinckley in his first weeks in office. This was an assertion made later by son Ronald Reagan, Jr., but denied by his adopted son Michael Reagan.  Reagan left office with a high popularity rating despite these controversies and issues in his second term, but many observers had questioned the wisdom of running for a second term at an older age than any president in US history (until Donald Trump and Joe Biden ran for president in 2016 and 2020).

Bill Clinton’s second term (1997-2001) was dogged by the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, which led to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, an Independent Counsel investigation of his conduct, impeachment in 1998, and Senate trial in 1999. The terrorist group Al Qaeda attacked US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa in 1998 and the Navy guided missile destroyer USS Cole near Yemen in 2000.  A 2000 Camp David summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority’s leader Yasser Arafat failed to bring progress. Clinton’s utilization of pardons and commutations on a massive scale as he left office in 2001 also contributed to a sense of corruption that undermined the image of his presidency. A split had developed between Clinton and his Vice President Al Gore; Gore decided to avoid campaigning with Clinton in his presidential campaign, which arguably contributed to his loss to George W. Bush.

George W. Bush’s second term (2005-2009) saw the Iraq War and Afghanistan War continuing relentlessly despite growing opposition, allowing Democrats to take control of both houses of Congress in the 2006 midterms.  Some Democrats demanded impeachment, although Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi discouraged it.  Controversy grew over Bush’s authorization of harsh interrogation policies, including CIA torture.  Bush came under personal attack in the nation of Georgia in 2005 by an unexploded grenade, and by two shoes thrown at him in 2008 in Iraq; both times he was not harmed. Domestically, the lax response of the Bush Administration to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005 with tremendous loss of life and property, and the inadequate response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dogged Bush for his second term. 

More seriously, the nation faced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression in the late summer and early fall of 2008. The “Great Recession” threatened economic stability, until a bailout of large banks was launched in order to avoid what economists thought could become an economic catastrophe.  Unemployment rose to 10 percent, and recovery in employment lagged behind the markets. It would take until 2010, the second year of the successor Obama Administration, for the downward trend in unemployment that would continue through the Obama Presidency and into Donald Trump’s Presidency.

Barack Obama’s second term (2013-2017) faced great opposition from a Republican House of Representatives under Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, and from a Republican Senate under Mitch McConnell from 2015 onward.  Obama continued to face resistance from the Republican opposition over the Affordable Care Act (or “ObamaCare”), and other issues including climate change, immigration, and gun regulations after the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre in 2012.  Therefore, Obama utilized executive orders and presidential memoranda, methods that led to constant attacks by right-wing media that he was radical and dictatorial. 

Obama also had great difficulties with the war in Afghanistan, and strained relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to the US in 2015 on the invitation of Speaker John Boehner, who did not seek presidential approval for the visit. The Syrian Civil War and the disarray in Libya became a heavy burden, and the rise of ISIS and ISIL created a new terrorism threat to the US and the civilized world.  The Russian invasion of the Crimean area of Ukraine in 2014 was not prevented or reversed by diplomacy, and relations between Russian Federation leader Vladimir Putin and the West deteriorated.  Finally, Mitch McConnell refused to have the Republican-controlled Senate consider his nomination of Merrick Garland to replace the deceased Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court,  a ploy which affected the future  composition and reputation of the Supreme Court.

So as speculation begins about whether President Joe Biden will seek a second term as president, the experiences of these 12 presidents are food for thought.  In a major sense, second terms in the Presidency are times of decline and stress. One could argue that many of the 12 presidents discussed might have had second thoughts on the wisdom of a second term.  This is part of the equation that Joe Biden and the Democrats are likely to be considering as the 2024 campaign will begin in earnest next year.

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