Breaking the second-term curse

KENNETH M. DUBERSTEIN served as chief of staff to President Reagan from 1988-89 and deputy chief of staff in 1987.

EVERY PRESIDENT in his second term deserves one do-over, a presidential mulligan. And the nation should insist that he take it. Since World War II, every presidency has stumbled after reelection.

In Washington, it’s called “the second-term curse.”

Eisenhower had the U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia, and his chief of staff resigned because he accepted a vicuna coat. LBJ had Vietnam, Nixon the Watergate coverup. Reagan endured the Iran-Contra affair. Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives because of Monica. Now President Bush’s administration is struggling with the CIA leak investigation, the indictment of a senior official, the withdrawal of a Supreme Court nominee and a less--than-popular war.

What causes second-term presidents to veer off track, to drop precipitously in job approval and popularity?


It’s usually a combination of hubris, the arrogance that comes from annihilating your presidential opponent, the cockiness of believing your own reelection press notices, staff fatigue from staying too long in a burnout job, new junior staffers not skilled in bringing reality to the Oval Office and the stress of creating and advocating an agenda as big and bold as the first term.

Add to this too much communal drinking from the same Kool-Aid, and it is a recipe for disaster for any second-term president. All of us who have served in second-term White Houses have seen this witch’s brew.

Second-term presidents need to throw open the door of the administration to reform and change, not to defend the status quo, the same-ol’ same-ol’. They need to think big and get the people behind them as if they were running for a third term.

That’s what President Reagan did in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, after national security advisor John Poindexter and his aide, Oliver North, were indicted on charges that included perjury and obstruction of justice.

Reagan gave a speech accepting responsibility for the scandal. He cleared out the deadwood, firing his chief of staff, Don Regan. He brought in former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, Frank Carlucci as national security advisor, a little-known general named Colin Powell as deputy national security advisor, and me.

From that day forward, all Iran-Contra issues were dealt with not by the president but by White House staff. (If Reagan talked about Iran-Contra, the media would cover nothing else that day.) When anything good happened in the economy, Reagan talked about it.

We took on important legislation that we thought we could win. And we made sure Reagan’s views on the Cold War and the Soviet Union would continue to be broadcast around the world.

In Reagan’s last two years, he won passage of a treaty reducing U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles. He reformed the welfare program to include a work requirement, enacted the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and had two highly successful summit meetings with the Soviets in Moscow and Washington. And, oh yes, he told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

In short, he fundamentally ended the Cold War.

Not bad, not bad at all for a president who at the end of his sixth year was embroiled in scandal and was at 37% job approval -- even lower than George W. Bush is today.

President Reagan left two years later with a 68% approval rating, the highest of any two-term president since polling began. He did it by being bold, thinking big, cleaning house and reversing the second-term curse.

President Bush can too.