There’s good news and bad news these days for the Obama administration. The bad news: President Obama’s anemic approval rating has plummeted to 40 percent; the good news, it probably can’t go much lower.
But, both the good news and the bad news for Obama isn’t news at all to students of the American presidency. In fact, Obama’s inexorable erosion of political support is a depressingly old pattern in modern American politics.
Since World War II, the phenomenon of re-elected presidents losing their support during their second term has become the norm. Obama’s decline is only the most recent example of a fate suffered by most two-term presidents.
Consider the record. The final two years of second-termers has brought almost unrelieved woe for presidents since Dwight Eisenhower. Lyndon Johnson was elected overwhelmingly in 1964, but by1968, the Vietnam quagmire forced him to withdraw as a presidential candidate. Nixon trounced his opponent in 1972, but by 1974 he resigned, facing certain impeachment. Clinton won convincingly in 1996, only to be impeached in 1998. Bush, a winner by 500,000 popular votes in 2004, ultimately rivaled Truman for the claim to the most unpopular president in modern times. Even Reagan struggled with Iran Contra.
Each troubled president encountered unique problems: for LBJ, it was Vietnam; for Nixon, the Watergate cover-up; for Clinton, his personal behavior in office; for Bush, the Iraq War; and now for Obama, health care.
But underneath these surface differences lay the common denominator described by one scholar as “the six-year itch”: Voters’ patience with the incumbent expires long before the second term does.
The causes of the six-year itch are well understood. One is simply time in office. The longer an administration holds power, the more it incurs the costs of governing: Poor decisions, policy miscues, staffing changes and bad behavior bear their bitterest fruit in second terms.
Another factor bearing down on ebbing presidencies is the absence of a substantial second-term agenda. This lack of exciting proposals is almost endemic to second terms. The big ideas mostly come in first terms.
Yet another cause of the six-year itch is the toxic partisanship in contemporary politics. Second-term presidents today almost inevitably work in a hostile political environment, even while rivals jockey for opportunities to embarrass or harass them.
Four years may not be enough for a successful president, but eight years is too much for most presidents. Is there not a happy compromise — a term long enough to be effective, but short enough to avoid painful death watches like the country now endures waiting for Obama’s term to end?
Such a compromise does exist and it’s the six-year term: a proposal that would amend the U.S. Constitution to provide a single six-year term for the president and vice president.
The six-year term is a good idea, but it’s not a new idea. It was originally proposed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and has been advanced intermittently throughout American history. At least nine former presidents have endorsed it, including Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford Hayes, William Harrison and William Taft. In modern times, the six-year term has been advocated by Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Proposals advocating the six-year term usually emphasize its public policy payoffs. Relieved of the need to run for re-election, presidents could tackle those complex national problems that seem so often to elude serious solutions. In short, the six-year term would take electoral politics out of public policy.
But an even stronger reason for the six-year term is that it fits the normal ebb and flow of presidential effectiveness over about six years. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons so many former U.S. presidents have advocated the six-year term was their personal experience with this inevitable erosion in effectiveness that marks the second term.
With so many arguments favoring a six-year term, why don’t we already have one? Sheer inertia is part of the answer. Major institutional change always triggers resistance. We muddle through painful periods like the present Obama interregnum until rescued by a new president and a new day. Then we promptly forget our angst until, almost without fail, it happens again.
Beyond inertia, familiarity with the present two-term system causes some to oppose the six-year term. It is the devil we know and some prefer it mainly for that reason.
This preference for the status quo carries an enormous cost incurred during the second term of most two-termers. When an incumbent president loses the nation’s trust as Obama has done, they almost never regain it. Consequently, President Obama’s present loss of influence means meaningful effort to solve the nation’s most pressing problems must wait until we have a new president. Urgent problems like immigration reform, gun control or reaching a “grand bargain” on budget and debt policy probably can’t be resolved before 2017 at the earliest.
This state of affairs is sad and sobering; it is also avoidable.
As we hobble through the remaining days of the Obama presidency, we have ample time to reflect on the costs of the six-year itch. Perhaps in an earlier and simpler time we could afford that cost. Few believe we still can.