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Examiner
  • Michael Devine: Second terms are notoriously difficult for presidents

  • Our nation has recently completed a long and contentious presidential election campaign. We’ve chosen to re-elect the incumbent, President Barack Obama, for another four years. History shows us that awarding a president a second term is not necessarily doing him a great favor.

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  • Our nation has recently completed a long and contentious presidential election campaign. We’ve chosen to re-elect the incumbent, President Barack Obama, for another four years. History shows us that awarding a president a second term is not necessarily doing him a great favor.
    Following the dramatic “Whistlestop campaign” in 1948, Harry Truman entered into the four most problematic years of his life. Elected to a term in his own right, Truman faced a Congress dominated by conservative Southern Democrats whose views on social issues were far more conservative than his. His ambitious domestic policy agenda, the “Fair Deal,” was stalled in Congress.
    Meanwhile, Truman had to deal with the fall of China to a communist regime, the outbreak of a brutal war on the Korean peninsula that cost nearly 40,000 America lives, and outrageous charges of pervasive communist influence within his administration from Republican opponents led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
    Difficult second terms for U.S. presidents originated with the experience of our very first chief executive. Two years after his election to a second term in 1792, President George Washington faced an armed rebellion against the federal government from farmers in western Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion, a protest against taxation on the farmers’ distilled spirits, forced our nation’s first commander-in-chief to organize an army larger than the Continental Army he had commanded during the American Revolution. Dozens of the anti-tax leaders were arrested. Several were convicted of treason and sentenced to death before being pardoned by the president.
    Disastrous, poorly planned military campaigns against Indians on the Ohio frontier and rising partisanship between Federalists and Republicans (Jeffersonians) in his cabinet further troubled Washington’s second term.
    In recent years, President Lyndon Johnson’s second term was marred by military failures in Vietnam, anti-war protests, and rising civil rights discontent at home. Richard Nixon was forced to resign because of the Watergate scandal within two years after his re-election in 1972. Ronald Reagan’s second term was damaged by the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton faced impeachment proceedings following the revelation of a sex scandal in the White House.
    President George W. Bush experienced perhaps the most difficult second term of any recent president as he failed in his effort to privatize Social Security (his primary domestic priority), presided over frustrating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and witnessed a disastrous meltdown of the American economy during his final months in office.
    Tragically, two Presidents, Abraham Lincoln (1865) and William McKinley (1901) were both assassinated shortly after beginning their second terms. In addition, several presidents suffered severe health problems during their second terms. These included Grover Cleveland (cancer), Woodrow Wilson (stroke), Dwight Eisenhower (various health issues related to his previous heart attack) and Ronald Reagan (early onset of dementia).
    In spite of the difficulties confronted in his second term, Truman is considered one of our greatest presidents. Like successful two-term presidents Washington, Wilson, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton, President Truman accomplished important things in spite of the challenges he faced. Furthermore, unpopular positions Truman took (sending troops to Korea and dismissing General Douglas MacArthur, for example) are now seen as courageous and correct actions.
    Page 2 of 2 - Presidents who successfully served two terms, like Truman, are also admired for articulating a vision for the future, even though the policies advocated may not come to fruition until later years, and under succeeding presidential administrations.
    In Truman’s case, these forward-looking policies included national health insurance, immigration reform, and federal aid to education, science and the arts. Some of these items became law in whole or in part during the 1960s and in later decades. Our political leaders are still working on parts of President Truman’s second-term agenda.
    Michael Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.

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