The Magazine

The Sixth Year Slump

Bush may be down, but don't count him out.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Now in the sixth year of his crisis-wracked presidency, George W. Bush is perceived as being in desperate trouble, having spent the two years since his reelection falling all over his feet. His democracy project looks stalled, his drive to reform Social Security seems to have been a huge waste of effort, his response to Katrina was more like sleep-walking, his pick of his White House counsel to fill a Supreme Court vacancy caused cardiac arrest in his base. Opinions differ as to whether he is a dead duck, or merely a lame one. Democrats claim he is going the way of one-term fiascos Carter and Hoover, who not only failed in themselves, but also ushered in long years of dominance by the opposite party. History, however, suggests something different: that sixth-year pain is nothing but normal, and has been shared in some way by all two-term presidents; that the judgments made of presidents in their sixth years of office (and in their seventh and eighth years, for that matter) have not always stood up over time.

Since 1933, eight different men have served more than one term in office, and all had some measure of grief. Franklin Roosevelt had not been sworn in after his historic 46-state blowout reelection in 1936 when he began plotting his court-packing project, a power-grab so blatant and so poorly crafted that it horrified even his friends. It was with his judgment newly in question that autumn that the country began to slip back into recession, something his nostrums did little to mollify. Unemployment, which had dropped from 25 percent to 9 percent in his first term, did a U-turn and climbed back to 19 percent, suggesting that he had been less than adept at dealing with the Depression. As a result, his party lost seven seats in the Senate in the 1938 midterm elections and 72 seats in the House. Widely believed to have run out of options, and increasingly frustrated at his inability to rouse the country to face the threat he saw rising from foreign aggression, his fortunes (and the country's) would not recover until the war itself began to emerge as an issue, calling both to rise to new heights.

Dwight Eisenhower, who would help win that war for FDR, would face similar woes as a second-term president. In October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, a shock to a country accustomed to seeing itself as the unchallenged leader in science, and one that gave credence to the charges later made by John F. Kennedy that Ike's administration had grown too complacent. At the same time, the country was hit by the worst recession since the end of the Second World War. In November, the president suffered a stroke. In May 1958, his vice president was almost killed by a mob while on a goodwill mission to Latin America. That June, his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, was revealed to be involved in a bribery scandal. That November, his party would suffer calamitous losses, ending up on the short end of almost two-to-one margins in the statehouses, the Senate, and the House. On May 1, 1960, just prior to a great power summit, an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, and after the administration had denied the existence of both the plane and the mission, Russians displayed the captured pilot on television, and the wreckage of the plane in Gorky Park.

But FDR and Ike were the lucky ones. Lyndon Johnson, a great Senate leader, widely acclaimed in 1965 for his performance in filling out the truncated term of John Kennedy, was so widely reviled by 1968 that he was forced into early retirement. Richard M. Nixon would bug his own office, and then tape himself plotting a cover-up. Bill Clinton, aware of his own lively past, would be so eager to placate his feminist allies that he would let his Justice Department push for ever-broadening definitions of sexual harassment, then the left's weapon of choice for the destruction of enemies. When caught in the trap he had carelessly fashioned, he chose to lie under oath. Clinton survived, but his gravitas quotient would never recover. In 2000, he would be a drag on his vice president, and since then his political interventions have been a mixed blessing for his party.