Pity the Poor Second Term Presidents
The commentariat of America's corporate mass media have just about reached their verdict on Barack Obama's second term: F for failure. We shouldn't be surprised. The day after Obama won re-election there was a wave of punditry reminding us that no second-term president has ever achieved very much. So little more than failure was ever expected from this second-term president.
But as Leo Tolstoy might have said, successful first-term presidencies all alike; every unsuccessful second-term presidency is unhappy in its own way.
The headline of a recent Washington Post editorial spoke for the emerging consensus: "America's global role deserves better support from Obama." "For seven decades since the end of World War II, the United States has shouldered the responsibility of global security guarantor," the editorial began, summing up the premise of that consensus.
Now, the Post lamented, the president is shirking America's responsibility, giving in to the temptation to "lay down that burden," "focusing on the costs of the U.S. global role," and thus offering us, instead of the bold leadership our global role requires, only "an uncertain trumpet."
Those last words take us back to 1960, when General Maxwell Taylor wrote a best-selling critique of Dwight Eisenhower's foreign policy, calling it an excessively weak "uncertain trumpet" in the face of a growing Communist menace -- for which Taylor was rewarded, by the new, more liberal president John F. Kennedy, with the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Taylor used his position of power to lead America's troop much deeper into the swamps of Vietnam.
Never mind that the American public remembers the lessons of Vietnam -- and Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind that, as the Post editorial noted, "a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of Americans want the United States to be 'less active' in world affairs -- a 33 percentage-point increase since 2001." Never mind that Obama tried to play the global commander-in-chief in Syria and had to back down in the face of the public's wrath. The American people just don't understand what's good for them and for the world, the centrist Post lamented.
Now, as in 1960, liberals are joining the chorus of criticism of a president who purportedly won't stand up to the Russian menace. After he described his own foreign policy this way -- “You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run" -- the usually supportive New York Times called it "a sadly pinched view of the powers of his office. ... It does not feel as if he is exercising sufficient American leadership and power."
Times columnist Maureen Dowd mocked Obama in her typically punchy way: "A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody. It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world. ... We expect the president, especially one who ran as Babe Ruth, to hit home runs." The real problem, Dowd concluded, speaking for the consensus, is that "Barry" is "whiffing."
Actually Eisenhower, the president the liberals attacked in 1960 for weakness, pretty much agreed with that dichotomous view of America's role in the world. He tried his best to command the world and to make sure the U.S. could go on commanding the world for decades to come. (That's why he wouldn't spend as much money on the military as the Democrats wanted; he was in it for what he called "the long haul.")
Yet just 14 months into his second term (Obama is now 15 months in) Ike was summing up his second term experience, in a private letter, in self-pitying terms: "There has scarcely been a day when some seemingly insoluble problem did not arrive on my desk.”
Eisenhower didn't see that his insoluble problems were largely of his own making. During his first term he could have gone to Geneva, forged a genuine rapprochement with the Soviets, and built a foundation for jointly resolving many of the problems that plagued him throughout his second term.
Instead he offered an "Open Skies" plan that was an obvious ploy to give the U.S. further cold war advantage. The Soviets saw through the ruse and rejected it (in part because they feared letting the world see how pitifully inferior their nuclear war-fighting capabilities were).
Eisenhower never imagined the possibility of really cooperating with the Soviets, and certainly not a joint U.S. - Russian space venture. So instead he had to suffer the second-term humiliation of seeing the Russians launch the first earth-orbiting satellite (Sputnik), and then the further humiliation of having a U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia, because he could never give up his goal of global control through global surveillance.
Eisenhower's experience is a good reminder of the maxim that every unsuccessful second-term presidency is unhappy in its own way.
But he also reminds us that a two-term president is usually remembered by history for what he accomplished in his first term, not what he failed to do in his second term.
Consider the roster of presidents who were seen, during their second-term, to be floundering and failing. It also includes Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Reagan -- all now widely admired by historians for leaving a powerful mark on the nation's history. Historians go on debating whether that mark was positive, of course; that's what historians are supposed to do. But there's general agreement that these, like Eisenhower, were strong presidents whose first terms marked significant turning points. In the history books, their perceived second-term failures are typically treated as less significant.
Wilson's failure to get the U.S. to join the League of Nations may be an exception to that rule. But most historians see the rejection of the League as a failure of the Senate, not the president, who often gets high marks for sticking to his first-term vision of a world without war, a world eternally safe for democracy. So Wilson probably does fit the general rule that second-term distress is eclipsed in the history books when there is reason to see first-term greatness.
Why, then, was there such a rush to condemn even the most eminent 20th century presidents during their second term? Because all of them, like Eisenhower, were failing to achieve goals they had set during their first terms, largely due to their own mistakes.
Wilson ran up not only against a recalcitrant Senate but against British and French leaders at Versailles whose aims he misread, and in both cases he overestimated his power of rhetorical persuasion.
FDR's New Deal faltered because he cut government spending, tried to pack the Supreme Court, and campaigned against Southern Democrats who were blocking his legislative program.
Truman, after launching America's cold war, continued to prosecute a war against communists that he could not win.
Reagan, after a first term filled with inspiring rhetoric of renewing American virtue, got caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal and responded with clumsy, unconvincing words of self-excuse.
Put all these criticisms of second-termers together, look at them the opposite way around (as if they were photographic negatives) and they paint a vivid picture of what we expect a president to be: wise, honest, virtuous, politically masterful, and powerful enough to win every battle, at home and abroad.
We want, not a human being with human failings, but a fairy-tale hero of mythic stature who will embody the kind of perfection that America's mythic traditions attribute to the nation as a whole. Or as Maureen Dowd put it, we want every two-termer to spend eight full years being the Babe Ruth of politics, hitting homer after homer -- and we want it, I would add, so we can go on believing that America is, year after year, the Babe Ruth of nations.
Eventually presidents' second-term failings fade from public memory, while their first-term home runs are remembered, so we can go on imagining that we've really had presidents who lived up to our cherished mythic standard.
In fact none did. And there's no reason we should expect Obama to, either.
However he is in a different category from all previous two-termers in one crucial respect. He is being denounced, not because he has failed to achieve foreign policy goals he set out during his first term, but precisely because he is doing so well in achieving his goals.
He made it clear from the beginning that, when it came to relations among nation-states (non-state "terrorists" are a different story) he would not flex America's muscle to demonstrate overt global control. Instead he would follow the maxim of John Quincy Adams (nearly every historian's choice for our greatest Secretary of State): America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Obama's great fault, his centrist and liberal critics insist, is that he sticking firmly to that maxim, which is widely scorned by today's foreign policy establishment, though it's once again quite popular among the people at large.
Ironically, in the current orgy of Obama-bashing, there is little mention of the one foreign policy goal he set in his first term that he may very well fail to fulfill due to his own mistake -- the Israel-Palestine agreement that seems to be eluding him. In the mass media there's barely a whisper of the obvious: those peace talks collapsed because Obama would not put enough pressure on the Israeli government to follow through on its promises and to stop new development in the West Bank.
Historians may eventually remember that as Obama's one true foreign policy failure. But if Obama follows the path of his predecessors, historians will turn that failure into a footnote, while lauding yet another president who achieved greatness in his first term. That's one way we keep the myth of America's greatness alive.
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