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Sep 30, 2005 | 03:30 GMT

14 mins read

Two-Term Presidents and Crises of Confidence

By George Friedman STRATFOR does not normally concern itself with the domestic politics of countries, except when political shifts might affect the behavior of nations internationally. We are doubly disinclined to concern ourselves with domestic politics in the United States: We have to live here, and whatever we say will be interpreted as partisan. Nevertheless, this is a moment at which American domestic politics bear examination. The Bush administration — whose ratings had been slipping already due to the situation in Iraq and rising oil prices — came under intense attack for its handling of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, and approval ratings a month after the storm are still hovering near a critical low. We note this now because the domestic strength of any administration determines, at least in part, its ability to execute foreign policy and the shape of that policy. At this moment, there are very real policy challenges not only in Iraq (where a critical vote approaches on the constitution) but in the former Soviet Union (where Russia is making moves to reclaim control of its near-abroad) and China — to name only a few areas where the appearance of a weakened presidency could have far-reaching implications for the United States. Therefore, the political condition of the Bush administration has a direct impact on geopolitics. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fundamental issue at stake for George W. Bush was whether the economic fallout from the storm — and the political savaging he experienced over response efforts — would hurt him so badly that, in due course, his support would erode to the degree that he no longer would be able to govern effectively. In the context of foreign policy, this would mean that he no longer would be able to make decisive moves because of severe preoccupation with domestic problems and lack of political support. Such things have happened before: For example, Richard Nixon — and his successor, Gerald Ford — lost the ability to respond to North Vietnam because of Watergate. Lyndon Johnson, his support crumbling, became paralyzed while waiting for his term to end. If such an extremity were to become the case for the Bush presidency, it would mean — as an example — that Bush would lose the ability to unilaterally decide strategy in Iraq. Therefore, understanding the president's political condition is critical. After Bush's re-election, we made the observation that two-term presidents tend to run into political trouble during their second terms — frequently over foreign policy, and at times to such a degree that they cannot continue to govern effectively. In examining the question of Bush's political fate, that observation bears closer scrutiny now. Two-Term Presidents: A Review During the 20th century, six presidents were elected to a second term: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Wilson's second term ended in congressional reversal of his policies on the League of Nations, something that changed dramatically history's perception of his presidency. During Roosevelt's second term, he was hammered first over his attempt to pack the Supreme Court and then, toward the end, by isolationists over what they claimed was his pro-British foreign policy. Had his career ended with his second term, Roosevelt would have been viewed quite differently by history. Eisenhower encountered a serious second-term scandal concerning his chief of staff, Sherman Adams. Later in his term, he was bitterly criticized over the apparent failure to counter Soviet successes in space and missiles. Nixon, of course, was drummed out of office by Watergate and never finished his term. Reagan was hit hard during his second term when the Iran-contra affair, much of which happened in his first term, broke into public view. And though Clinton did not have a foreign policy problem, he was impeached in his second term over Monica Lewinsky and was hammered on Whitewater. Of these presidents, Eisenhower fared the best, but all were faced with serious problems that were not anticipated when they won re-election. An historical review of two-term presidents is somewhat muddied by a class of leaders who came into office after the death of a president and then were elected to a single, final term. These presidents included Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Roosevelt and Coolidge chose not to run for a second term of their own, and Truman and Johnson simply could not run. They would have lost the election and, toward the end of their terms, they had lost the ability to act decisively. Looking at the 10 presidents as a whole, therefore, we can divide them into three classes. First, there were those who could be said to have successful second terms: Theodore Roosevelt and Coolidge (who both were elevated vice presidents). Second, there were those whose second terms were worse than their first, but who ultimately remained in control until the end: Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton. Third, there were those who experienced catastrophic failure in their second terms. Four of them — Wilson (who was also ill), Truman, Johnson and Nixon — lost the ability to govern as a result. Of the four presidents who faced catastrophic outcomes, all had serious foreign policy problems. Wilson had the League of Nations, Truman had Korea, Johnson and Nixon had Vietnam. For one of these presidents, Nixon, Vietnam was not the primary cause of failure, but it was an element in the problem. Of the four who weathered a troubling second term, three — Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan — were plagued by foreign policy problems, but none lost control of their foreign policy. And Clinton's problems were rooted more in perceived personal failings than in any clear policy issues. Patterns of Failed Presidencies The question we are coming to is this: Bush at this point clearly is not going to wind up in the Theodore Roosevelt-Calvin Coolidge group. The question is whether he eventually will join the class of failed presidents (Wilson, Truman, Johnson, Nixon) or whether he will belong to the relatively successful group who simply had problems along the way (FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton)? We should point out that the question is not how they look in retrospect. Many would argue that Truman was a successful president in retrospect. That may or may not be the case, but he certainly would not have been re-elected president given the perceptions of his performance at the time. The question is whether, at the time, these "failed" presidents had lost public confidence so fully that they no longer could govern. Turning our attention, then, to the presidents who by the end had lost control of their situations, we see that three lost control because of foreign policy issues — or, to be more precise, because of wars that had outcomes unsatisfactory to the public. Only one — Nixon — lost control primarily because of personal scandal, and one could make the case, which we won't, that he also had a foreign policy/war problem. None of the four presidents who weathered their second-term storms were dealing with an extended state of active war during their second terms. FDR, obviously, complicates this profile, since he had a war in his third and fourth terms, but he did not wage an unsatisfactory war in the public's view. At this point, we can see a first pattern: Presidential failure in the second term consistently has been the result of unsatisfactory wars or perceptions that the president was a criminal. Wilson fought the First World War successfully but tried to bring it to an unacceptable conclusion at Versailles. Truman could not terminate the Korean War; Johnson could not terminate the Vietnam War. All were perceived, by the end of their terms, as having entangled themselves in a war with unrealistic goals. It was not always the war itself that damaged the presidents' service, but the growing sense that these presidents did not have a strategy in the war that served the national interest. The issue, however, is more complex than this. All four failed presidents were reviled by the end of their second terms. But so were FDR, Reagan and Clinton. Even Eisenhower, though it is hard to recall now, was treated with extreme contempt by the press and others for his perceived personal, intellectual failings — however, the level of animosity was neither as deep or as broad as with the others. The intensity of feeling against all eight men during their second terms was enormous: All faced a substantial group of vitriolic, irreconcilable opponents. At various points, this group expanded to constitute a majority. But the core issue — the key differentiator between the two groups of "failed' or "troubled" presidents — was this: Among the troubled presidents, at no point did their own base of support crack. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton were reviled and at times on the defensive, but at no point did their own core supporters waver significantly. The failed presidents, on the other hand, all failed not because their opponents reviled them or even because those opponents became a majority, but because their own base of political support lost basic confidence in them. Wilson had suffered a revolt among the Democrats. Truman no longer could get the Democratic nomination. It is doubtful that Johnson could have won his party's nomination had he sought it. Nixon collapsed when Republican senators turned on him. On the other hand, no matter what attacks were launched against FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan or Clinton, their base held like a rock. Even when FDR was outgunned by the isolationists, he held his base, and he was never broken. Bush's problem, therefore, is the war in Iraq. But the issue is not his Democratic opposition, nor even whether his opponents swell to become a majority. The threat to Bush's presidency will come if, and only if, his own political base breaks. By all polls, that base — which historically has been at about 40-42 percent — is holding. If that continues to be the case, he will be able to execute foreign policy effectively. If that base is shattered, he fails. Will Bush's Center Hold? There is no evidence at this time that the situation in Iraq is cutting into Bush's base of support, but the controversies he weathered following Hurricane Katrina brought attention to his ratings — which remain soft — at an extraordinarily early point in his second term. The charges being leveled by Democrats over Katrina were the same charges that always have been leveled at Bush. First, that he isn't smart enough to be president — and, in the case of Katrina, that he was too dumb to realize what was happening and too slow to respond. Second, that he is hostile to the interests of the poor and minorities — that if the hurricane had struck a predominantly white, well-to-do city, he would have been more responsive. Both arguments have been tried by the Democrats on all issues. The visceral impact from Katrina, we would expect, will energize and expand the Democrats' base, but it will not expand at the expense of the Republicans' support. In fact, it will secure the support base for the GOP. There is one caveat. If Bush's base of support decides, of its own accord, that the president really did not understand what was going on in the hurricane zone until late in the week — days after Katrina struck — Bush will reach a crisis point. The storm passed weeks ago, but the danger from public opinion still lingers: Given the numbers of people who were displaced by Katrina and the enormous, long-term need for aid, there is plenty of room for mismanagement and backlash. And if that backlash begins to come from Bush's core supporters, they inevitably will begin to examine their own views of the Iraq war, which is built around the assumption that Bush is effectively executing a difficult and necessary war, in the face of Democratic slander. There has been confidence in Bush's character. But if it is determined that Bush failed in the Katrina crisis because of a failure of character, then all bets will be off. In the four failed presidencies, it was the sudden, wrenching realization among core supporters that the president they were defending was unworthy of defense that made all the difference. The fact that Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton never reached that moment with their own supporters is what made them successful. Why does this moment come with wars and in second terms? There is a simple, obvious reason that is utterly human and understandable: a combination of exhaustion, self-confidence and boredom. By the second term, a president is tired: The demands of the White House create a brutal life. He is also self-confident, often to the point of arrogance: He has, after all, survived his enemies and clearly has mastered his office. He has reached the point where he has seen and done everything, and tends to view all matters through the prism of his experience — including the things that he hasn't experienced. He starts making mistakes, takes too long to correct them, is in denial that he has made a mistake and doesn't want to hear arguments. If a president has surrounded himself with an inner circle that has both enclosed him and been with him from the beginning, they will be in the same condition. They are all tired. By the middle of the second term, everyone is punchy. Significantly, there is a tendency — particularly after a successful re-election bid — to keep the successful team. It is interesting to note that Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton all moved their teams around in their second term; the "failed" presidents tended to go with their permanent inner circle. In Bush's case, that inner circle made a mistake on Katrina. One can argue the details, but the fact was that it appeared to the public that Bush didn't move fast enough. And in a national catastrophe, the president's job is, at the very least, to appear to be doing something — to lead. Bush's support base is forgiving, until the point that they shred. In looking at the polls, it does not appear that any shredding is occurring: His support base appears to be holding, with approval ratings around the low 40s — removing any immediate fears of danger to his presidency. But the steadiness of that base now depends on Bush's ability to do what Wilson, Truman, Johnson and Nixon could not manage to do: give the sense that they were in control of the situation. Those presidents' inability to adjust rapidly and publicly — the fact that they froze when they needed to be decisive — created a crisis of confidence among their support base that led to irredeemable failure. It does not appear to us at the moment that Bush has reached this point. But it is not inconceivable that he will. There's not a great deal of give in Bush's approval ratings at the moment, and only weeks ago — between late August and mid-September — he was in a definite "red zone", with only 38 to 40 percent of Americans approving of his performance. The public remains concerned not only with the war in Iraq but with high energy costs — which will begin to pinch more in some parts of the country, with the need for heating fuel coming on — and emerging fears of a possible recession. The challenges for Bush, both foreign and domestic, are many, and another crisis could begin to eat away at his core support. The next few weeks, in our view, could be decisive in determining whether the United States is going to go through one of those crises of confidence it has experienced in the past. Those spasms have created opportunities for international opponents of the United States to take advantage of the paralysis — and that, when it occurs, is a geopolitical, not just a political, problem.

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