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Obama looks to avoid the "second-term curse"

President Obama won't formally lay out his second-term agenda until his inaugural address later today, but the president has already made clear some of the major issues he intends to take on over the next four years. He has signaled that his focus in the short-term is on passage of corporate tax reform and new gun control laws as well as comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Over the long term, Mr. Obama plans to continue focusing on the nation's fiscal issues - including potentially achieving the elusive "grand bargain" to address the debt and deficit - continue the transition out of Afghanistan, and help shepherd the implementation of the health care law, which has a number of major provisions that kick in next year.

As he works toward these goals, Mr. Obama will also have to fend off the sort of major second-term setbacks that have hampered his predecessors as they tried to push their post-reelection agenda. That could be harder than you might think: Such setbacks have occurred so often that they've given rise to a nickname - the "second-term curse" - that has been applied to every reelected president dating back to Franklin Roosevelt.

Sometimes, the "second-term curse" is invoked in reference to a scandal: Richard Nixon and Watergate, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra. Sometimes it comes in the form of failure: Roosevelt and his plan to pack the Supreme Court, George W. Bush's effort to privatize Social Security. And sometimes it's a string of events: In addition to the Social Security debacle, Mr. Bush saw his legacy tarnished by fallout from the Iraq war and the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

"Second-term presidencies, at least since World War II, have always been plagued by some kind of mistakes or scandal," said Ken Duberstein, who served as Reagan's White House chief of staff. Duberstein attributed that fact in part to "a tendency for hubris that if not checked goes toward overreach."

"Most second-term presidents seem to believe that they have perhaps a stronger mandate from the American people than they actually do," he said.

After he won reelection by 2.4 percentage points in 2004, Mr. Bush declared that "the people made it clear what they wanted," adding that he "earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." He outlined his Social Security plan in February 2005 and campaigned for the proposal during a 60-day national tour - only to see support decline and congressional Republicans back away from the issue.

Stephen Hess, who served in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, said that a president needs to act "fairly quickly" in his second term, since Congress will soon be looking to the next election and treating the current president as a lame duck.

"It's like an hourglass with the sand running out," said Hess. The "lame duck" perception explains in part why presidents have historically focused more in international relations in their second term, an area where they have less dependence on winning over Congress.

Asked to explain the "second term curse," Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to Mr. Bush, attributed it to "fatigue, staff turnover and [the fact that] presidents' have usually moved off their top agenda items onto second-tier issues."

Historian Douglas Brinkley, meanwhile, argued that "the notion of the second term curse is a bit overplayed."

"It stems from the fact that two recent presidents, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, had disastrous second terms," he said. "But really, a lot of the great presidents would never have made it into greatness without a second term. Take Bill Clinton. If it wasn't for the second term, Clinton wouldn't have been able to have the budget surplus, which is his great achievement now." Brinkley ticked off other second-term achievements, including Reagan's diplomatic successes in the Cold War and Dwight Eisenhower's establishment of NASA.

"President Obama shouldn't listen to all that noise about a second-term curse, because there's nothing to it," he said.

Still, Brinkley acknowledged that second-term presidents "start becoming irrelevant to the political process in the last two years." He said this is a time that presidents should focus on "big things" that are outside "the paradigm of just going mano-a-mano with Congress all the time."

"You travel a lot," he said. "You go to China and try to improve U.S.-China trade relations or try to make bilateral pollution standards. You try to make progress in the Mideast peace dilemma, you go to countries that have never had a presidential visit, where it would be historic. Perhaps you go to the Arctic, which is melting right now, with a bunch of climate scientists and glaciologists and talk about what's happening."

John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said there is a simple explanation for why so many presidents have seen scandal in their second term: They've been in office longer.

"The longer that time goes on, the more likely it is someone is going to get into some kind of trouble," he said. "Plus, there's more time for investigating a scandal. The scandals that come out in the second term often happened in the first term."

"If a scandal does come up, and you can almost be certain one will, I think President Obama's best approach is to look at what Presidents Reagan and Clinton did in dealing with scandal," Hudak continued. "The key for president Obama is to distance himself from it and work the press so he comes out of it looking like a.) he's still doing a good job running the country and b.) that his hands are clean, whether that's true or not."

After four years in Washington, Mr. Obama appears to have shifted from the more conciliatory tone he took with the GOP opposition early in his presidency toward a more oppositional stance, one illustrated by his recent refusal to negotiate on raising the debt limit. During a news conference last week, Mr. Obama said that he liked House Speaker John Boehner personally and had a "great time" golfing with him. But, he continued, "that didn't get a [grand bargain] deal done in 2011."

Former Obama aide Jen Psaki said that the president has learned during his time in office.

"The president is a pragmatist, and he wants to get things done," she said. "And he knows that compromise is a part of that. And that's how he's been able to move many things forward. But there's no question that he's learned. He has learned that having the will of the American people behind you and working directly with them is more important than having a conversation within the cauldron of Washington."

Hess argued that the president will have built a significant legacy if he is able simply to oversee the implementation of the health care law passed in his first term.

"He passed that, but it's got a lot of rough edges," he said. "If only in the next four years, he got that into working shape so that when he left the White House, he left that behind, that's a pretty major step forward. It's up there with Social Security and Medicare. So in some ways that's the most important."

Hudak said the president can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

"He has to set aside what he would love to do for what he can do," he said. "And if he focuses on what he can do, he'll have a hell of a list of legislative accomplishments in his second term. But if he focuses on the ideal, he'll have a 'second term curse' in terms of policy."

Duberstein agreed, saying that "there's a tendency sometimes to overreach or to have too many priorities or too many initiatives rather than order the two, three, four items that I want to get done in my second term." Brinkley, meanwhile, argued that the second term is the time for big, dramatic action.

"People want something bold, something memorable," he said. "They want to know, 'Where is he leading us? What's the 'moon shot' of our time?'"