Want to Be Popular? Don't Be President

Sometimes it’s hard to see why presidents want to wait around for a second term; that seems to be the point where it all goes to heck.
It's lonely at the top.

Sometimes it's hard to see why presidents want to wait around for a second term; that seems to be the point where it all goes to heck. Nixon had Watergate; Reagan, Iran-Contra; Clinton, impeachment; Bush, Katrina and the steady decline of Iraq. Now Barack Obama, too, seems to be entering into the unpleasant, scandal- and headache-ridden phase of his presidency.

My father, who is a wise man, once pointed out to me that scandals are practically inevitable in a second presidential term because there are a lot of people in an administration, and as the years wear on, the probability that one of them has done something insalubriously newsworthy approaches certainty. Such as creating special, off-the-books waiting lists at their Veterans Administration hospitals in order to collect their performance bonuses. Or experiencing a series of unfortunate events rendering them unable to provide subpoena'd documents.

Meanwhile, as George W. Bush also discovered, foreign policy tends to get more annoying and complicated. In your first term, you can feel like you are planting seeds and waiting for them to bear fruit. In your second term, whatever happens around the world will be attributed to you by voters (however fairly or unfairly). If it is bad, then your approval ratings will go down, and there's not much you can do, because the U.S. president is not the world's parent and cannot send other countries to their room until they behave themselves.

Meanwhile, in your second term, you lose the ability to blame it all on the feckless and irresponsible policies of your predecessor. At some point, voters want to know why you couldn't get it done, if you're so much better than that venal poltroon.

Barack Obama's poll numbers are not as bad as George W. Bush's were at this point in his term, but they are not good, and in recent months, they have been headed in the wrong direction. Barring a few years of really stellar economic growth -- which is by no means impossible, but by no means inevitable, either -- Obama can probably expect to leave office with his poll numbers in the low 40s, or lower. Potentially much lower.

Meanwhile, he can probably expect to spend the next two years sitting in the Oval Office, plagued by Middle Eastern conflicts that have no good solutions, investigations of the Internal Revenue Service and other negative-publicity events, and demands that he defend his legacy. He will have no ability to make significant domestic policy -- and before you blame that on Republican obstructionism, try to think of another recent president who delivered a significant domestic-policy achievement during the last two years of an eight-year term. For good or for ill, most of what a president does happens in the first term, when energy is high and voters are still irrationally optimistic. So presidents should probably think harder about sticking around for reruns.

Especially in this climate. Looking at Obama's poll ratings, and Bush's, is enough to make you wonder if anyone can successfully occupy the Oval Office. Two very different presidents, with agendas that were, in many ways, mirror images of each other . . . and both found it impossible to maintain an approval rating above 50 percent. If neither of them can do it, who can? Which, of course, raises an obvious question: Why does anyone want to stick around for the first term, much less a second?

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    Megan McArdle at

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