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Second Terms Are Historically Hard To Navigate


President Obama is the third president in a row to face the challenges of a second term, on the heels of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The last time there were three in a row, their names were Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. In the modern era, second terms have become notorious for getting derailed.

To find out what history may teach President Obama about navigating the next four years, we reached presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Welcome.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So let's start with the president's address. What would serve him best to say in this speech?

BESCHLOSS: This is probably the biggest audience he will ever have for the rest of his life, so he's got this unbelievable opportunity, this huge audience, to essentially have at Americans give them a sense of what he wants to do, won't have the opportunity again. So if he does that well, this can be a big boost.

MONTAGNE: What do you think is ahead in the next four years?

BESCHLOSS: I think what's ahead for him is someone who is pretty sure of his powers - doesn't overestimate them, doesn't underestimate. And a big problem that face second term presidents more than anything else is fear. And the odd thing is that the people who are most afraid were pre-presidents in modern times elected by the biggest majorities: Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, also Lyndon Johnson.

Roosevelt was afraid that although he had this enormous majority, his bills were going to get overruled, his acts by the Supreme Court. So, he had this ridiculous theme to pack the Supreme Court with his own justices. It failed, reduced his power. Lyndon Johnson was afraid that the Senate and House, if they knew how costly the Vietnam War were really going to be, they wouldn't be in favor of it. So, he was very deceitful about what those costs would be.

And Richard Nixon, perhaps most forgotten, before the Watergate scandal accelerated, he came into that second term two house of Congress very much against him. And so he thought he would stop what they wanted to do with something called impoundment. He said I'm going to start refusing to spend funds that you have voted for me to carry out certain programs that you want and I don't. Even without Watergate, there's some chance that Nixon could have been impeached.

MONTAGNE: Well, how does President Obama fit into that lineup? What does he have potentially to fear?

BESCHLOSS: Most presidents defer their most controversial programs, the things they want from Congress, until their second term. They say, you know, first, let me get reelected and then I'll do the controversial stuff perhaps in my fifth year. Obama did the opposite. He did health care in that first and second year, mainly on the thought that he might not have a Democratic Congress like that ever again, which may have turned out to be right.

MONTAGNE: Well, there's another thing. There's always talk of how much freedom that presidents have when they're in their second terms. They don't have to run again and, theoretically, don't have anything to lose. But how much time does a president actually have until he becomes such a lame duck that it begins to hurt his ability to get anything done?

BESCHLOSS: He's got about six months. And...

MONTAGNE: Six months?

BESCHLOSS: Six months, and there's a historical precedent for that. Lyndon Johnson in January of 1965 had been reelected by the largest landslide in presidential history, had more Democrats in Congress than there ever were during the 20th century, except for Roosevelt. Yet he knew enough about the House and Senate to tell his aides, you may think I can get anything I want but I really have got only six months, because I will be asking a lot of members of Congress to compromise and make sacrifices that will hurt them in their states and districts.

After about six months, they're going to get tired of it and they're going to start thinking about the election next year. So, everything we really want to get done that's controversial, let's get it done in these next six months, first half of 1965, turned out to be right. Because if you think about the great society, most of the things we think about - voting rights, Medicare, education - really took place during that six-month window.

MONTAGNE: Johnson wasn't unique. I mean, those who waited too long lost?

BESCHLOSS: They lost, because especially in these times, you know, politics look so much forward. By the fall of this year, people are going to begin to think about the midterm election, who's going to run for president in 2016. So, any president in modern times who does not try to get what he wants in the second term done fast, making a big mistake.

MONTAGNE: Part of President Obama's strategy for seeing his agenda through a second term has been keeping part of his campaign apparatus intact and to use that to build popular support for his priorities. Is that something original for him or has it been done in the past?

BESCHLOSS: We have never seen anything quite like this before. Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, halfway through his second term, tried to go into the states and campaign against conservative Democrats he wanted voted out of office using his campaign apparatus. Failed miserably. The people he wanted to defeat all succeeded.

Barack Obama in two elections has used social media, very precise organization in the states to help him win two elections. It's going to be fascinating to see if that same apparatus can help him get things through Congress and get other things he wants to do.

MONTAGNE: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, thank you very much.

BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Renee.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.