To: President Joe Biden
From: Lowly Pundit Bill Scher
You know better than your naysayers. While they panic about the polls and launch ageist attacks, you forge ahead, secure in the knowledge that you are hardly the first president with midterm blues. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan all had job approval ratings that sunk below 40 percent in their first terms before they roared back to win reelection. You have no obligation to give up the presidency.
But why would you want to keep it?
There have been literally no good presidential second terms. (Abraham Lincoln’s started strong, but it got cut short.) Why subject yourself to four more years of misery when you could be spending time at Rehoboth Beach and basking in nostalgic accolades?
If you want examples–and have a strong stomach–go down the list of twice-elected presidents over the past 100 years.
Obama never regained Democratic control of Congress. His legislative agenda was either filibustered in the Senate or bottled up by the Republican-led House. Judges struck down his executive order legalizing the status of more than four million undocumented immigrants and nixed his Environmental Protection Agency program to cut carbon emissions from power plants. Both parties scuttled his Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. He stood impotent as Senate Republicans refused to let him fill Antonin Scalia’s vacant Supreme Court seat.
George W. Bush, despite having a Republican Congress as he began his second term, learned the hard way that his reelection wasn’t a mandate to privatize Social Security. “Mission Accomplished” became a quagmire. Hurricane Katrina showed us that 43 and Brownie were doing “a heckuva job.” Republicans lost Congress after the 2006 midterms. By the end, the banking industry imploded and caused a global economic meltdown. W. wasn’t even invited to address the 2008 Republican National Convention in person.
Clinton created his own second-term problems by having an extramarital affair in his first term that led to his impeachment. But even if he had remained faithful, his second term would have been made miserable by the Republicans who controlled both houses of Congress.
Reagan’s Republicans lost control of the Senate in 1986. As The New York Times immediately foresaw, the election defeat “put a brake on Mr. Reagan’s effort to reshape the nation’s judiciary.” Reagan pressed his luck and nominated the ultraconservative Robert Bork for the next Court vacancy, a bet that did not pay off when Bork was defeated on the Senate floor.
Right after the 1986 midterms, the Iran-Contra affair dealt Reagan another blow. The revelation that the federal government had illegally sold weapons to Iran and diverted part of the proceeds to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua prompted the resignation of his national security adviser and eventually the convictions of 11 administration officials (two of which were overturned on appeal).
Granted, Reagan’s scandal didn’t force him from office. That fate was suffered by Richard Nixon in his second term, who resigned to avoid impeachment over his role in Watergate.
Dwight Eisenhower’s second term looks pretty good compared to all of the above. But he grappled with scandals, too. His chief of staff, Sherman Adams resigned, right before the 1958 midterms, after being accused of receiving improper gifts. And Soviet Union’s downing of an American U-2 spy plane in 1960 strained relations and derailed efforts for a nuclear weapons agreement. Eisenhower never enjoyed Republican control of Congress after 1954, but an economic recession in 1958 led to a particularly devastating midterm and huge Democratic majorities.
Twenty years earlier, Franklin D. Roosevelt was also hit with a recession in his second term. Combined with a failed attempt to purge conservatives from the Democratic congressional caucuses, the 1938 midterm was a disaster for Roosevelt and ended his ability to enact further New Deal reforms.
Twenty years before that, Woodrow Wilson made a public plea to keep Democrats in control of Congress during the Great War. The public did just the opposite, flipping both chambers to the Republicans. The Republican Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge then took the lead in blocking the ratification of Wilson’s painstakingly crafted Treaty of Versailles and doomed Wilson’s dream of an international peacekeeping organization, the League of Nations.
Granted, the past is not always prologue. But it is incredibly unusual to win a second term and a fully cooperative Congress. Even in the rare instances when a second term begins with same-party control of both House and Senate, lack of party unity and the filibuster often prevent the passage of the president’s top priorities.
And you cannot bank on a Democratic trifecta beyond 2022, let alone 2024. Republicans only need to net five House seats to seize control, which shouldn’t be hard when your job approval is in the 30s. And even if Democrats can keep the Senate, the 2024 map is horrific, with three Democratic-held seats (Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia) from Trump-won states on the ballot, plus seven more in states you won by fewer than 10 points. Conversely, Republicans will be defending no seats in states you won, and only two (Florida and Texas) in states Trump won by less than 10 points. As frustrating as legislating has been with a narrow House majority, and a 50-50 Senate, what’s ahead will likely be worse.
Why does any president bother with reelection? Beyond the innate human unwillingness to give up power is the lame duck problem. If a first-term president announces that there will be no second term for members of the president’s party in Congress, the political incentive for unity erodes. Members of Congress can more easily whack the president without concern that they are kneecapping their next nominee. A president needs his party to see that their political fates are intertwined, so his legislative agenda can more easily pass Congress.
But your agenda is pretty much kaput. For over a year, you have been wooing Joe Manchin, pleading with him to support a party line multifaceted reconciliation bill before the 2022 midterms. Appeals to Manchin’s personal and party loyalties have flopped, and only a small fraction of what you have proposed could get his thumbs-up. If you’re lucky enough to get his blessing, prospects for any more far-reaching progressive legislation are bleak.
The question you, Mr. President, should ask yourself: Why should you bother? There’s nothing to gain from staving off lame duck status and a second term that’s sure to be miserable. You’ve been running for office since 1969. Is this how you want to spend your remaining years?
Go out big. You defeated Donald Trump, saving democracy. You managed a once-in-a-century pandemic. You kept unemployment low. You broke the long-standing gridlock on infrastructure and gun safety. You named the first Black woman to the Supreme Court and delivered the first Black, South Asian, and female vice president. You maintained NATO unity in the face of Russian aggression.
You’ve done good, Mr. President. The choice of what to do next is yours alone. But I can say with full confidence: You will enjoy retirement much more than you will enjoy a second term.