Other Presidents Had Tough Second Terms, Too

President Obama stopped short of admitting he's had a pretty tough year in his final press conference of 2013. Historian Robert Dallek joins NPR's Linda Wertheimer for a look back at the year, and to put Obama's trying times in context with other presidents who had difficult second terms.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

President Obama said it himself: The end of the year is always a good time to reflect. At his final press conference for 2013, he stopped short of admitting he's had a pretty tough year and instead, focused on the future. But we wondered about the past. Which presidents have endured similarly trying times in their second terms, and how did they fare?

The Watergate scandal forced Richard Nixon to resign after his re-election. Historian Robert Dallek told us, of course President Nixon's second term was the ultimate disaster. But what about presidents whose second-term experiences might more closely parallel President Obama's; a second term built on a solid re-election, then repeatedly dinged - in Mr. Obama's case, by failures on major issues from gun control and immigration to the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov. Robert Dallek says that's a familiar story.

ROBERT DALLEK: You know, what comes to mind immediately was this thought of Franklin Roosevelt's second term. He won an extraordinary landslide over Alf Landon in 1936; and to the surprise of many, many people, he proposed what became known as court packing. And that became the great political struggle of 1937, and it really sidetracked him from getting anything else of significance done.

And I think what's clear to historians is that if he only had that second term, he would be remembered as a significant, important president but certainly not one of the greatest presidents in American history.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what about this problem: Edward Snowden has caused a diplomatic crisis for the president. This one individual has upset relations among this country's allies. He has revealed things that the federal government is up to, that have caused a crisis of confidence at home. I wonder if there's anything like that, one sort of - one individual causing an international crisis.

DALLEK: Well, think of the revelations of the young woman who caught Bill Clinton out, so to speak, and really did serious damage to his second term. And the media can hype it to the Nth degree, and it can then shape the way in which people look at a president, his administration; and of course, people in Congress lose confidence in him, and it makes it awfully difficult for him then to get anything done on the domestic side.

Presidents often, then, turn to foreign policy because they have much more leeway in that arena, and they don't have to get congressional approval to take certain foreign policy initiatives. Mark Twain said history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. And so in a sense, you can see continuities here.

WERTHEIMER: Is there some kind of second-term jinx, do you think?

DALLEK: I don't believe in curses or jinxes, but there is a certain pattern here. And I think the difficulty is that by the time a president is in his second term, the excitement that's always there at the start of a first term, it's diminished because the man's flaws, his limitation are pretty much now on display.

You know, in many ways, people think presidents walk on water; that they're miracle workers - at least, at the start of their first term. And by the start of the second term, it's transparent that they can't put across everything they'd like to achieve. You know, Abraham Lincoln said: I freely admit that events have controlled me more than I've controlled events.

WERTHEIMER: How do past presidents do on the question of comeback?

DALLEK: They can recover because, you know, Linda, circumstances can dictate so much more than what a Congress or a president can control. And if certain events occur, a president can be back at the center of authority - you know, what happened, I think, with Bill Clinton. He was able to end his second term with a kind of surge of influence.

WERTHEIMER: Historian Robert Dallek; his most recent book is "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." Robert Dallek, thank you very much.

DALLEK: My pleasure.

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