Second-term blues?  

What happens to presidents in their second term? In recent memory, plenty.

Nixon faced Watergate. Reagan coped with Iran-Contra. Clinton had Monica.

Even before that, FDR’s plan to pack the courts with judges friendly to his New Deal plan failed, while Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff Sherman Adams was forced to resign in 1958.

History tells us that second-term blues are hardly unprecedented, and this presidency seems to be no exception. George W. Bush, who is dealing with a growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, the potentially high price of home heating oil, the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff I. Lewis Libby and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, fallout from the government’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina and the investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Earlier this year, Bush’s effort to revamp Social Security met with fierce opposition from Congress and the general public; he was also forced to withdraw the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

An early November Washington Post-ABC News poll placed Bush’s disapproval rating at 60 percent—the highest level in his presidency.

But there may be a more devastating number in that same poll—58 percent of people have doubts about Bush’s honesty. “He has always gotten a lot of mileage out of the fact that people did trust him,” says Rogers Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science. “That image has been tarnished. He does need to reestablish it. He needs to do so by being more forthcoming about things that have gone wrong.” While Smith noted that Bush did accept responsibility for federal mistakes related to Katrina, he adds that Bush will have to reassure the public that the White House is severing ties with anyone who may have been involved in covering up the leaking of a CIA agent’s name to the press.

When Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings were in a tailspin after Iran-Contra, he cleaned house. But Bush isn’t yet taking his cue from the former president. He also doesn’t have someone in the mold of Nancy Reagan, who made sure to keep people around her husband who served him well. “[Bush] is known for loyalty as a value above all else,” says Smith. “It’s going to be hard for him to clean house.”

Such second-term problems, mistakes and scandals may have a common denominator, says Smith—arrogance based on having been in power for a long time. “In some cases, they get tired,” he says. “In some [cases] they think they can get away with more than they can.”

Midterm elections are a year away—and a lot could happen between now and then, though Smith says that it’s not a matter of if the Republicans are vulnerable, but by how much. If people still sense that gas prices, the war in Iraq and the economy are problematic, look for that to affect the 2006 election. At the same time, Smith says, the Democrats must be able to present themselves as attractive alternatives.

He points out that Bush certainly could recoup his public approval numbers. “Ronald Reagan was even lower at this point in his second term with Iran-Contra and other problems,” he says. “He ended up going out of office a very popular president.” Bill Clinton’s approval numbers dipped into the mid-30s, but he, too, left office with a high rating. If given the ear of the president, “I certainly would tell him to clean house and bring into the administration people that have a strong reputation for integrity,” Smith says. “It wouldn’t hurt to appoint a moderate Democrat to a prominent post and create a sense of positive change in that way.”

Originally published on November 17, 2005