Barack Obama brings to 16 the number of presidents elected to a second term. The total is 18 if you include Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who were elected only once but had served nearly four years of a predecessor’s term. Mr. Obama would be well advised to consider the history of these second terms. Its message is to beware of interpreting re-election as an invitation to overreach.

The considerable majority of second terms were far less successful than the first. Some were disastrous. Only James Monroe, Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt got through it with their reputations intact or enhanced. Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in his second term for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

Associated Press

Even George Washington, almost an American saint in his lifetime, was savagely criticized in his second term. He caused outrage by signing the Jay Treaty, which was ratified in 1796. This trade agreement with Britain enraged Jeffersonians, who favored France in European squabbles and thought the treaty bolstered the rival Federalists.

Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley were assassinated only six weeks and six months into their second terms. The only other presidential second term to end prematurely was Richard Nixon’s.

But consider this when thinking of Nixon’s Watergate disgrace: Harry Truman, after firing the insubordinate but revered Gen. Douglas MacArthur and failing to win the stalemated Korean War, was so unpopular by the last year of his presidency that his approval rating sank as low as 22%, lower than Nixon’s when he resigned (24%).

Ronald Reagan became ensnared in the Iran-Contra scandal in his second term and Bill Clinton was impeached (but not convicted) for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Ulysses Grant’s second term was mired in even worse scandals than those that plagued his first. Grant himself was honest, but he was notably loyal to his friends, who often were not.

Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock, was deeply corrupt and involved in the so-called whiskey ring, where a group of federal officials connived with distilleries to siphon millions of dollars in federal liquor taxes. Babcock was tried for his part in the scandal and Grant gave a deposition at the trial, the only time a sitting president has done so in a criminal proceeding. Given that a deep recession had started only six months after Grant’s second inauguration (an economic decline that would last six years), it isn’t surprising that Grant became so unpopular.

Thomas Jefferson’s first term, marked by the Louisiana Purchase, had been a great success and he was easily re-elected. But in his second term he initiated one of the most bizarre policies in American (or, indeed, world) history and paid a terrible political price.

Both Britain and France had been harassing American merchant ships, seizing them and, in the case of Britain, impressing sailors into the Royal Navy. Hoping to force Britain and France to honor American rights, Jefferson pushed the Embargo Act through Congress in 1807. It forbade trade with the European powers and the U.S. Navy was deployed to, in effect, blockade American ports.

The act was very unpopular in all of the country’s port cities. But it was especially so in New England, where shipping and shipbuilding were the largest industries. Talk of secession rose as New England’s economy fell into a deep depression. Smuggling became so rife that Jefferson declared the area around Lake Champlain to be in a state of insurrection.

Franklin Roosevelt also politically overstepped in his second term. Triumphantly re-elected in 1936 but frustrated that much of his economic policy had been stymied by the Supreme Court, FDR proposed to “pack” the court by appointing an extra justice for every justice on the bench who was over age 70½. Roosevelt pushed hard for the bill, even giving one of his fireside chats about it in March 1937. But the bill was seen as tampering with the fundamental constitutional balance among the three branches of government.

Without public support, Roosevelt could not push the bill through Congress, even though both houses had huge Democratic majorities. When the recovery stalled later that year and the economy began to sink back into depression, Roosevelt’s popularity nose-dived. Still, his coalition secured his third and fourth terms, and success in wartime revived his reputation.

Perhaps the saddest second term was Woodrow Wilson’s. The income tax, the Federal Reserve and the Clayton Antitrust Act were passed in his first administration. Narrowly re-elected in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Wilson asked for a declaration of war only a month into his second term. When the war was won, Wilson sailed for Europe in December 1918 to personally negotiate the peace treaty. He was away for almost seven months (with one brief return), by far the longest time a sitting president has been out of the country.

Wilson was determined to establish a League of Nations to keep the peace in the future. Both British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau were indifferent to the League, and they made Wilson pay a high price to get it, resulting in the vengeful Treaty of Versailles. Wilson also failed to take into account objections to the League by Senate Republicans back home. He refused to allow them to participate in the negotiations and refused to compromise to overcome their objections.

Instead he went on a countrywide speaking tour to build public support for the treaty and get the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate. The effort proved too much for him and he collapsed in September 1919, while in Pueblo, Colo. A week later a serious stroke left him partially paralyzed and blind in one eye.

His wife, Ellen, essentially became the acting president, shielding him from his cabinet and even the vice president, deciding what he would deal with and what would be left to others. Wilson recovered enough to be able to walk with a cane, but his old vigor was gone. He was a wrecked man.

Second terms are hazardous affairs at best. But no modern president is likely to suffer the humiliation that James Madison experienced in 1814 during his second term. That was when the British invaded the country and burned the nation’s capital.

Mr. Gordon is the author of “An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power” (HarperCollins, 2004).

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