The curse of the second term hovers over hapless President Obama

Out of America: Few US presidents have avoided failure or downright ignominy after re-election

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'Tis that haunted season here in Washington again. I refer not to Halloween and the accompanying skeletons, synthetic cobwebs and plastic creepy-crawlies that currently populate our front lawns, but to the spectre that regularly returns at this stage in the political cycle here – the Curse of the Second Term.

This time a year ago, Barack Obama was on the brink of becoming the 16th American president to win two successive elections. A couple of days later, Mitt Romney was soundly defeated, and chastened Republicans, it was imagined, would retire to lick their wounds. Backed by a another solid popular mandate, it was said, Obama had a rare opportunity; a 12- or 18-month window in which to push through his agenda and build a legacy for the ages, free of the pressure of ever running for election again.

So much for that. Instead, all the talk is of the "Curse", that supposedly immutable truth of presidencies. Back in the 19th century, Lincoln was assassinated just 41 days after delivering his immortal second inaugural speech. The second term of Lincoln's great Civil War commander Ulysses Grant, between 1873 and 1877, was even more disastrous than his first. And as columnist Gail Collins helpfully reminded me the other day in The New York Times, Grover Cleveland after being re-elected in 1892 was afflicted by mouth cancer, before being politically flattened by a financial crisis that lasted most of his second term.

More recently, the Curse's poster-child has been Richard Nixon, forced to resign less than two years after one of the greatest landslide victories in US history. And who can forget Dubya? "I've earned political capital and I intend to spend it," he boasted immediately after defeating John Kerry in November 2004.

Then came Hurricane Katrina, Iraq and the 2008 crash. George W Bush left office with Nixon-esque approval ratings; better, he must have thought, to have called it quits after a single term, when he still had some political cash in the bank. And now Obama. A year into his second term, and there hasn't even been time to fasten the lame-duck label around his neck, so fast have things gone wrong.

A few months ago, there were some dummy runs for disaster: the "scandal" over whether his administration lied over the deadly 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, the news that the supposedly neutral tax authorities had been targeting right-wing political groups, and the revelation that his Justice Department had been secretly collecting the phone records of reporters. Those mini-tempests didn't last. Whether the current storm will die so quickly is another matter.

Obama's vacillations in the Middle East have not only upset every US ally in the region, from Saudi Arabia and Turkey to Israel, but provided Vladimir Putin, no less, with a chance to lecture the US on the op-ed page of The Times, a spectacle as grotesque as it was humiliating.

Meanwhile, the requisition of a score of journalists' phone logs has paled beside the revelation that the NSA has been scooping up the internet records of about every human being on the planet, and listening into Angela Merkel's mobile.

On top of that, we've had the government shutdown (not Obama's fault, but which did not reflect well on his ability to wheel and deal) and, most recently, the shambolic launch of his signature healthcare reform, in which he has been revealed as being, shall we say, somewhat economical with the truth. Obama's approval rating has dropped to 42 per cent, not yet at Nixon or Bush levels, but the worst since he took office.

And it all seems to fit a pattern. There's something about second terms. Voters (not to mention columnists) get bored. They've had time to work out what they don't like about a president. In Obama's case, it's a perceived lassitude, verging on weakness, and a tendency not so much to act as react. The great talker, the standard wisdom runs, is not a great doer.

To be fair, no second-term president has ever had confront the sort of scorched-earth opposition offered by today's Congressional Republicans. Obama suffers too from another eternal problem of second-termers. Many of his cabinet officials and top aides have left government. The replacements are OK, but not quite as good, and an administration's performance suffers accordingly.

All this is true now. As for Obama's second-term agenda – immigration reform, climate change legislation and so on – the prospects are dim. At least as likely, he'll be reduced to fighting more pointless and counter-productive fights with Republicans over the budget and debt ceiling.

But the Curse is not carved in stone. For one thing, so unpopular are Republicans for the excesses of the Tea Party and for having provoked the government shutdown that Democrats could regain the House in next year's mid-terms. This could give Obama new life at the moment he moves into lame-duck territory.

Second, of the 15 re-elected presidents, several have actually done quite well in their second term. Yes, Reagan II will be remembered for the Iran-Contra scandal. But he also signed a historic superpower arms control pact that hastened the end of the Cold War.

Or take Bill Clinton. His second term will be remembered not only for Monica Lewinsky and the first impeachment of an incumbent since Andrew Johnson in 1868. It also brought economic boom and, unimaginable today, a federal budget surplus. Clinton's approval ratings when he left office were in the mid-60s, a figure Obama would kill for. Indeed, if the constitution had allowed it, a third term was Clinton's for the asking. Curse? What Curse?

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