U.S. President Barack Obama on Jan. 21 began his second term, during which he may find himself dealing with unforeseen consequences of decisions made in his first term. Common sense might dictate that Obama now has more maneuverability in domestic and foreign policy decision-making than he did during his first term given that he will not face another re-election campaign. Empirically, however, this appears not to be the case.
A look back at previous two-term U.S. presidents reveals that presidents in their second term had a tendency to be more constrained in their decision-making than in their first term. Woodrow Wilson defined his first term by passing a series of progressive reforms, including an antitrust law and the reimposition of the income tax. His second term was dominated by U.S. involvement in World War I and culminated in a disorderly demobilization, subsequent domestic unrest and treaty negotiations that failed to garner the support of his own government; the term ultimately ended up affecting his health.
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Despite Dwight D. Eisenhower's accomplishments in the Cold War during his first term — including defusing the Suez Crisis — he underestimated the power of propaganda during his second term. In 1957, while the United States was still trying to develop functional satellites, Russia launched the artificial satellite, Sputnik, into space. This terrified Americans by giving the impression that the United States was losing the space race and possibly even the Cold War.
Richard Nixon also faced second-term difficulties. He did end U.S. involvement in Vietnam during his first term, but he resigned in his second term after being implicated in the Watergate scandal. As for Ronald Reagan, Reaganomics won him popular support during his first term by reversing the high inflation and unemployment rates left over from Jimmy Carter's term, but the Iran-Contra scandal defined his second term. Although an investigation failed to find evidence that Reagan knew of the United States' covert arms sales to Iran and the subsequent use of profits to fund Nicaragua's rebel group, the Contras, Reagan experienced the sharpest decline in popularity of any U.S. president in history.
Bill Clinton may have presided over the longest period of peace and economic growth the United States has ever experienced, but he was impeached during his second term for lying under oath about an affair he had while in office. Finally, while George W. Bush's first term was characterized by his response to the 9/11 attacks, he faced increasing criticism during his second term over his handling of the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 recession.
There are two clear reasons why a president's second term is more likely to be tougher than the first. First, if a president has a difficult first term, the likelihood of getting re-elected is pretty slim. Second, eight years is a long time in which a lot can go wrong. But then there's a less obvious reason. Decisions made in the first term will often lead to unintended consequences in the second.
Obama is beginning his second term with controversial domestic and foreign policy dealings on tap. Americans are still reeling from recent mass shootings, but Obama will likely find that imposing meaningful changes to national gun control laws will remain an uphill battle. Additionally, after winning a victory over health care in his first term, he could experience trouble in the implementation phase of that plan.
Internationally, Obama's first term saw the United States turn toward a more balanced foreign policy that required regional actors to shoulder more responsibility for local flare-ups rather than the United States assuming the role of global policeman. In addition to withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has avoided a military intervention in Iran and Syria, preferring instead to see the region turn against Iranian power on its own. Under Obama's watch, the United States has also recently allowed France to take the reins in Mali. It is too early to tell, but this less proactive foreign policy may end up exacerbating threats in the future and draw the United States back in, especially as jihadist activity spreads in the Levant and North Africa.
The trip wires of the first term, however, are not always readily apparent when a president begins his second term. So it remains to be seen which issue could throw Obama's second term off balance.