Kenneth Mack: Tackling Myths about Two-Term Presidents

Roundup: Historians' Take

Kenneth Mack is a professor of law at Harvard University.

When President Obama beat Mitt Romney on Tuesday to win a second term in the White House, he joined the elite club of rehired commanders in chief that includes Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. But also part of this club are less-well-regarded presidents such as Ulysses S. Grant, Calvin Coolidge and George W. Bush. Let’s examine some popular misconceptions about two-term presidents to learn what a second chance has meant for their places in history.

1. Election to a second term is a mandate.

Reelection is usually a validation of a president’s popularity and political skill, as well as a rejection of what was proposed by the losing candidate. Reading it as an endorsement of an ambitious political agenda is a trickier proposition.

Three 20th-century presidents elected to second terms by overwhelming margins — FDR, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — were ultimately weakened by political overreaching. The escalation of the war in Vietnam undid Johnson, while FDR’s Supreme Court-packing plan and unsuccessful attempt to unseat conservative Democrats in the 1938 elections showed weakened political prowess....

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