Obama’s “second-term curse”
KAILUA, Hawaii—US President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and their daughters Malia and Sasha are in Kailua, a suburb of Honolulu, for their annual vacation—the family’s Christmas tradition for many years now. Obama was born in Hawaii.
Considering the multiple crises that have beset Obama’s past two years in office, this should be a welcome respite from his onerous burdens prior to his exit in two years. But he is suffering from what American-presidency historians call the “second-term curse.”
The “curse” refers to the observation that reelected presidents undergo the most trying stage of their tenure during their second term, especially at the beginning of their sixth year in office when they become lame-duck leaders. The fallout has taken quite fatal forms, such as assassination.
Abraham Lincoln, considered the greatest president that the United States has produced, was assassinated in 1865 during his second term by a brooding Confederate fanatic, John Wilkes Booth, as Lincoln watched a theatrical program in Washington. He was the first US president killed early in his second term.
William McKinley, known to most Filipinos as one of the architects of Philippine annexation by the United States in the late 19th century through “manifest destiny,” fell to an assassin’s bullet a day after he delivered his second inaugural address in September 1901. The assassin, an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, reportedly shot McKinley because he wanted to kill a “ruler.”
In recent times, Richard Nixon became the first president in American history to resign, in 1974, at the start of his second term. Invoking “executive privilege,” he had refused for several months to release the tapes and documents implicating him in the infamous Watergate scandal. He was to be impeached for certain by the US Congress for obstruction of justice, among other charges. But he preempted the impending impeachment by stepping down as president without admitting guilt in any of the charges leveled at him.
Another presidential scandal, this time of a sexual nature and known as “l’affaire Lewinsky,” hounded Bill Clinton during his second term. The affair involved White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but Clinton famously claimed that he “did not have sex with that woman.” He was impeached by the House of Representatives on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury, but was acquitted by the Senate. The vote, 55-44, did not meet the minimum two-thirds vote needed to convict an impeached president.
George W. Bush was reelected president by a minuscule margin. In his second term, he faced the most serious challenge in coping with the destructive effects of Hurricane “Katrina” in 2005, as well as with the continuing devastation left by the terrorist attack on the New York twin towers in 2001, which killed more than 3,000.
Beset by criticism, Bush promptly waged war against Afghanistan. In addition, he also launched another war against Iraq, this time supposedly to stop Saddam Hussein’s use of nuclear “weapons of mass destruction.” As it turned out, his assumption about Iraq’s possession of these WMDs was unfounded, as shown by investigations conducted by international bodies.
And now Obama, who must be mulling over his own legacy as he vacations in Hawaii. Unlike previous presidents who were beset by single issues, such as the threat of assassination or involvement in a scandal, Obama is swamped by a number of crises occurring all at once—the Isis threat in the Middle East involving not only Syria but also Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia and other places in the region, the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the continuing Israeli-Arab mutual attacks, the unrest in Hong Kong, the North Korea threat, the Ebola scare, climate change disasters, and other foreign policy issues.
Add to these domestic problems like the mass shootings in American institutions and public places, which have become commonplace, his continuing battles with Republican leaders who now control both chambers of Congress, general discontent with his “Obamacare” and immigration programs, and so on. And his ratings continue to decline.
The 2014 midterm election in which the Republican Party captured the leadership in Congress was a telling referendum on Obama’s presidency. How he handles all these crisis situations in the next couple of years will determine the legacy he will leave the American people in the long run.
One redeeming feature of Obama’s remaining time as US president could be his latest foreign policy initiative to normalize US relations with Cuba, which has been viewed positively by the public so far. He is right in that the economic sanctions that the United States imposed on Cuba in the past 50 years have not worked.
This is reminiscent of Nixon’s lasting legacy of opening the door to China early in his term, for which he will probably be remembered more than the damage of Watergate that forced his resignation.
The second term of any US president seems to be problematic, indeed, and Obama needs a creative breakthrough at this critical juncture to get out of the “curse” that is seemingly dooming the rest of his presidential life.
Belinda A. Aquino is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she was professor of political science and Asian studies and founding director of the Center for Philippine Studies.
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