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The Second Term Jinx (posted January 24, 2005)

Now that President George W. Bush has been inaugurated, the big question is can he avoid the second term jinx. Most of the recent presidents who have been elected to another term have suffered poor fortunes in their second term. For example, Nixon became ensnarled in Watergate and was forced to resign. Reagan was investigated for the Iran-Contra scandal and suffered a drop in popularity. Clinton had his Monica Lewinsky scandal and was impeached by the House of Representatives.

While each of these developments was idiosyncratic, the fact that Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton all had major misfortunes in their second term raise the possibility that the jinx is for real real. Second-term presidents face political risks because of the loss of energy, a growing coalition of voters who feel disenchanted, and political weakness that encourages congressional opponents to investigate them. The second midterm election of any president's administration typically is when the greatest losses occur. Nixon was a prime example of this. In 1974, his party lost 48 seats due to the combination of Watergate and a major recession. In 1986, Reagan's party lost 5 seats, while in 1998, Clinton was able to mobilize a backlash against Republicans, and his party actually gained 5 seats.

Will Bush fall victim to the second term jinx or will he avoid its fate? One of the reasons Bush replaced half his Cabinet was to avoid this jinx. With so many new people in his administration, the president is hoping new blood and new energy will keep his Cabinet energized and productive, unlike the situation in many second terms. In addition, Republicans retain control of the House and Senate. This will allow Bush to avoid congressional investigations that created problems for past presidents.

The major risk facing Bush is the 2006 midterm elections. If the president's party holds its own, then Bush will be in a strong position to pass legislation and avoid the curse of ineffectiveness. However, if Republicans suffer serious losses in 2006, it will cloud his last two years in office and open his administration up to congressional investigators. The 2006 midterms will be the key to whether the president can avoid the second term jinx.