Presidential Power in Troubled Second Terms


Alfred Zacher’s examination of presidential second terms provides an interesting discussion of how and why they are generally less successful than first terms. 


With the presidential election of 2012 knocking on the door and numerous pundits speculating on what it may hold for the present incumbent, it is not a bad idea to examine the past for clues to the future, assuming that the incumbent is re-elected.  This, is, in part, what the Alfred Zacher attempts to do, in providing us with a fairly detailed examination of the second terms of Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush.  But more importantly, he also provides a set of standards by which presidential administrations may be judged.  These, presented in an introductory chapter cover five expectations of the American people, followed by six measures which, in his opinion a President must fulfill in order to be re-elected, and finally, four qualities of leadership that are necessary for a President to prevail over the challenges that he faces. 


While the reader may not necessarily agree with all of the author’s standards, they do provide a reasonable basis for judgment on the performance of a chief executive and as well as a foundation for the judgments he provides in the main chapters of this book. 


At the time of publication there were 19 Presidents who had achieved a second term, including Grover Cleveland, whose terms were not consecutive.  According to Zacher, almost of these men failed to achieve “greatness” in their second terms.  Those he lists as successful are Washington, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  The rest he analyzes as less than successful in their second terms, including Franklin Roosevelt, who, nonetheless went on to a third and partial fourth term. 


Each presidency is examined for significant events, decision points and their effects on the office holder.  Zacher presents his reasoning as to why the president failed or succeeded, often with background information to support his contention.  It is, thus, an interesting and useful resource book.   


However, Zacher’s work is not without its faults.  For example, his exposition of the Clinton / Lewinsky scandal reads more like an indictment of Bill Clinton’s accusers, than of Clinton, himself, and it fails to show the flat objectivity that would be more suitable for an unbiased historical observer.  Similarly, he calls Roanld Reagan “stubborn” and lacking in curiosity, while his autobiography, An American Life reveals exactly the opposite.  He also suggests that Reagan was fortunate in occupying the White House when the Soviets suddenly decided to change their production priority from military to civilian purposes, effectively whitewashing the course of events that most other historians have adopted.  Thus, it appears that, at least, in the modern context the author has adopted a significantly slanted view of history he should be covering without bias. 


This last problem becomes very obvious when he attempts to provide an analysis of the Obama first term.  First he states the obvious; that Obama lacked the background to run for President, then suggests that he stepped out of character in running.  This ignores the narcissism that other commentators have noted, and which would make pursuit of high office an obvious goal.  He next touts Obama as a “fast learner” while failing to provide any real evidence of the “accomplishments” other than “momentous legislation” that lead to this conclusion.  His admission that the American public does not approve of the direction the country is headed in militates to the contrary.  He concludes that Obama is not likely to be re-elected, perhaps reluctantly. 


In the end, one is that Zacher’s work is best in a context where he avoids making politically slanted judgments because the subject matter is too old for them to be of interest.  History has already judged Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and so on.  Anything he would add is of little importance in the overall sea of material already present.  Thus, this book is most useful in its discussion of the pre-20th Century Presidents, and is much less so the closer we get to the present day. 


Finally, this work will perform best in the hands of those who can filter the content down to the facts and eliminate any opinion driven rhetoric. 


Presidential Power ins Troubled Seocnd Terms is available from 

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