President Obama is facing one of his roughest stretches in office after questions about the government’s response to the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, the admission by the Internal Revenue Service that it inappropriately targeted conservative groups which sought tax-exempt status, and the revelation that the Justice Department subpoenaed communications by The Associated Press.
In reaction, some commentators have written about a second-term curse – the supposed tendency of presidencies to unravel, especially because of scandal, in their second term.
Is there really anything to this? Or is this a case of selective memory, with pundits recalling administrations like George W. Bush’s, which struggled in its second term, while neglecting those like Bill Clinton’s, in which the sitting president remained reasonably popular in spite of his impeachment by the House of Representatives?
The chart below presents average approval ratings for the seven two-term presidents since World War II and before Mr. Obama. There’s nothing complicated about the analysis; I’ve just averaged the approval ratings for all polls in the Roper Center database, and broken the results down by the year of the term. (I’ve used Jan. 1 as the cutoff for a new year, even though the anniversary of the inauguration is technically Jan. 20). For Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in 1974, the second year of his second term, I’ve used his very last approval rating while still in office (24 percent approval in early August 1974) as a substitute for his approval ratings in his third and fourth years.
There are several things to observe from this data. First, the seven presidents were quite popular, on average, in their first term. Their approval ratings averaged 59 percent throughout their first term, and 57 percent in the final year of their first term, when they faced an election.
By contrast, the same presidents averaged a 48 percent approval rating during their second term. Moreover, their approval ratings declined throughout their second term – to an average of only 42 percent by the final year of their second term.
So does this provide proof of the second-term curse? Actually, there are a couple of complications.
As we noted, the two-term presidents were quite popular in their first term, but one reason for that is because the unpopular presidents – like Jimmy Carter and, to a lesser degree, George Bush – never made it to a second term, so they were selected out of the sample. Some of the decline in approval ratings, then, is a case of reversion to the mean. In that sense, the second-term curse is a bit like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, the tendency for an athlete’s performance to decline after he is featured on the cover of that magazine. The reason for this is that the athlete usually appears on the cover right after he’s accomplished something amazing — so if he goes back to being a merely good player, his performance will pale by comparison.
However, the popularity of some of these presidents is poor not just by comparison, but by any standard. Three of the seven — Mr. Nixon, George W. Bush, and Harry S. Truman — had approval ratings below 30 percent by the time they left office.
But nor does there appear to be anything inevitable about a second-term decline. Two of the presidents, Mr. Clinton and Ronald Reagan, were more popular on average during their second term than during their first. And while Dwight D. Eisenhower’s approval ratings declined from a very high first-term average, he remained quite popular in his second term.
It’s also the case presidents’ approval ratings did not normally decline in the second term without good reason. Some presidents, like Mr. Bush, were harmed by poor economic performance; some, like Mr. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, by unpopular foreign wars; and some, like, Mr. Nixon, by scandal.
What’s less clear is if there is any systematic tendency for a president’s approval ratings to decline in his second term, other factors held equal — like, for example, because the public is increasingly fatigued by having the same person in office. It is also hard to make very many generalizations from only seven data points, some of which reflect different circumstances than the ones that Mr. Obama now faces. (For instance, Mr. Truman and Mr. Johnson, who had among the largest declines in their approval ratings, were serving their first elected term in their second overall term.)
There is some evidence, from the political scientist Brendan Nyhan, that scandals are more likely occur in the second term (PDF). However, Mr. Nyhan defines scandals mainly by what the news media refer to as “scandals.” Not all of these scandals had a major impact on public opinion. (In at least one case – the impeachment of Mr. Clinton in 1998 resulting from the Monica Lewinsky disrepute and Paula Jones lawsuit – the scandal may have ultimately helped the president because the other party was perceived as overreaching.) It may be that the news media judge presidents more harshly during their second terms, but the extent to which this might influence the broader public is an open question.
My view, then, is that the idea of the second-term curse is sloppy as an analytical concept. There is certainly a historical tendency for presidents who earn a second term to become less popular — but some of this reflects reversion to the mean. And some recent presidents have overcome the supposed curse and actually become more popular on average during their second terms.
Finally, the term “curse” might seem to imply that the decline in approval ratings is a matter of bad luck or otherwise beyond the president’s power to control. But the presidents who experienced the largest decline in approval ratings, like Mr. Nixon and Mr. Bush, were punished because of decisions that they made.