Recent events suggest that the 44th president may not be immune to the phenomenon that historians call the “second-term curse.”
Not four months after his ambitious inaugural address, President Obama finds himself struggling to move his legislative agenda through an unbudging Congress.
And over the past week, two flaring controversies — one over his administration’s handling of the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, the other over Internal Revenue Service employees targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny — have dominated the discussion in Washington.
It is far from clear how big a political liability either will turn out to be.
At a minimum, they represent diversions working against a president who is keenly aware of how little time he has left to achieve big things.
And they are a test of the insular Obama team’s skill at keeping its footing in an environment of hyperpartisan politics and hair-trigger media.
On Friday, for instance, news of the IRS admission and developments surrounding the Benghazi attack turned White House press secretary Jay Carney’s daily briefing into a feeding frenzy and drowned out coverage of a speech that Obama was giving that day on the implementation of the health-care law that stands as his biggest achievement.
“After the election, the president said he was familiar with the literature on second-term difficulties,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “We scholars may be about to see whether knowledge of that history can help a president when they begin to strike.”
“What we’ve seen in the past week reignites the question scholars ask about problematic second terms,” Beschloss added. “Is it mainly a coincidence that every president of the past 80 years has had a hard time after getting reelected? Or is it somehow baked into the structure of a second-term presidency that some combination of serious troubles is going to happen?”
White House officials acknowledge that the history of modern second-term presidencies is a sobering one, replete with scandal and failure.
But they insist that they have seen nothing to suggest that Obama will fall into the traps that have ensnared so many of his predecessors: nothing that rivals the Watergate investigation that drove Richard M. Nixon out of office in 1974, the Iran-contra scandal that nearly derailed Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1986, or the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.
The current furor will serve only to make Obama’s opponents look bad, they predict.
“Partisan investigations by the Republicans have been a part of daily life around here since the Republicans took over the House in 2011. Every time they jump up and down and scream, ‘Watergate,’ they end with egg on their face,” said White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. “I don’t see this as a second-term phenomenon. It’s just life with the GOP in charge.”
But even some of Obama’s allies worry privately that his difficulties may be made worse by his lack of deep relationships on Capitol Hill, notwithstanding his round of dinners with members lately. His congressional liaison, Miguel Rodriguez, came to the job virtually unknown by lawmakers. The president himself has a tendency to hunker down with a tight circle of loyalists.
“I don’t think he has adequate people questioning him on these things,” said one close Obama ally and Washington veteran. He agreed to speak frankly on the condition that he not be identified.
Obama’s aides remain optimistic about his ability to rack up major achievements, starting with the successful implementation of the health-care law enacted during his first term and including the passage of a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system.
“From the president on down, we all understand that controversies and distractions are going to arise,” said White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “But we try to keep a good sense of understanding the difference between what people care about and what is just politics.”
The current political culture “creates more froth around these controversies, but what is the impact?” added Palmieri, a Clinton White House veteran. “Things definitely move quickly now and go away faster than they used to.”
It is true that the president’s adversaries are already predicting the most dire consequences, particularly from the questions that have arisen over the administration’s forthrightness in its response to the Benghazi attack.
“I believe that before it’s all over, this president will not fill out his full term,” former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee predicted on his radio show. “As bad as Watergate was because it broke the trust between the president and the people, no one died. This is more serious because four Americans did in fact die. And President Obama has yet to explain why did they die.”
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) has labeled the Benghazi case “the most serious and most egregious cover-up in American history.”
“We may be starting to use the I-word before too long,” Inhofe told conservative talk radio host Rusty Humphries, referring to the possibility of impeachment.
But the unease is no longer confined to the right, particularly after three State Department officials appeared before Congress last week and criticized administration actions before, during and after the Sept. 11 attacks in Libya. E-mails from that chaotic period that have come to light through media reports in recent days suggest there was furious infighting among various agencies over the talking points presented as the administration’s first explanation of the events.
“There is no evidence the White House is hiding the truth about what occurred in Benghazi,” journalist David Corn wrote in left-leaning Mother Jones magazine. “But the White House has indeed been caught not telling the full story.”
Meanwhile, the IRS’s admission that it singled out tea party groups for special scrutiny in deciding whether to grant tax-exempt status has confirmed accusations by some of those organizations that they were treated improperly.
The agency insists that decision was made by low-level career employees in its Cincinnati office and was not done for political purposes. But the revelation set off an outcry over what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called “thuggish practices.”
On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that senior IRS officials knew of the targeting as early as 2011, which contradicted then-commissioner Douglas H. Shulman’s assurances to Congress that the conservative groups were not being singled out. The AP obtained portions of the draft of a report that the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is expected to release this week.
“Benghazi and the IRS, each one taken in isolation is in the ankle-biting category,” said historian David Kennedy. “But if you add up enough ducks, they can peck you to death. It’s a sea of trouble.”
Chris Lehane, one of the “masters of disaster” who ran the damage-control operation in the Clinton White House, said Obama’s staff has failed to follow some basic rules for dealing with a potential scandal: avoid putting out a narrative that will not be sustained by the facts and get in front of damaging information by making it public before your adversaries do it.
For instance, “if they had put those [Benghazi] e-mails out on their own terms, they would have gotten a little more of the benefit of the doubt,” Lehane said. “There’s no question that if they had basically applied the fundamentals of crisis management, they would be in a different situation today.”
But with the attack happening less than two months before voters went to the polls last year, “they may have made the decision that it was better to win the presidential election and deal with the fallout on the other side,” Lehane said.
History suggests that rocky terrain lay ahead on that other side.
“Every second-term president, at least since Eisenhower with the U-2 [spy plane shot down in Soviet airspace] has somehow gone into a ditch,” said Ken Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff during Reagan’s second term.
“The suggestions that Obama is in a deep ditch are probably premature,” Duberstein added. “But when you get in a ditch, you need to stop digging. You need to put down the shovel.”