Second Terms, Sour and Sweet

Second-term presidents encounter political turbulence, their poll ratings plummet as public opinion sours. Right?

Wrong.

Over the past 60 years, five U.S. presidents have been re-elected: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Two fit the conventional notion. Nixon, whose ratings fell through the floor when he became ensnared in the Watergate scandal, was eventually forced to resign. Bush's second term failed after his major miscalculation in trying to partially privatize Social Security and a woefully inadequate response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The other two-termers went out on a high, with approval ratings of 60 percent or higher. Even after political setbacks, Eisenhower maintained his status as an above-the-fray figure that he had acquired as supreme allied commander in World War II.

The re-elected Reagan had a rough first couple years with a flawed new chief of staff, the former Wall Street executive Donald Regan, and the Iran-Contra scandal. However, led by his Treasury secretary, Jim Baker, sweeping tax reform was enacted. And encouraged by his wife, Nancy, and Secretary of State George Shultz, Reagan signed a nuclear-arms reduction with the Soviet Union. He was enormously popular when he left office.

So was Clinton in 2001, with a backlash against the political effort by House Republicans to impeach him for lying about a sexual affair. Right before he left office, the Gallup poll reported that he had a 66 percent public-approval rating. Within weeks, his popularity plummeted when news surfaced of his final-hours pardon of the tax fugitive Marc Rich. Ever resilient, he came back. Today, there is no more popular political figure in the U.S.

(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News and a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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