Disillusionment with Washington has rarely run higher. Congress is unable to act even in areas where there is widespread agreement that new measures are necessary, such as immigration, infrastructure and business tax reform. Barack Obama’s administration is condemned as ineffectual with respect to both domestic and foreign policy.

There was once a flood of extraordinarily talented people eager to accept political appointments and go into government; it has shrunk to a trickle. Crucial positions remain unfilled for months or years.

Bipartisan compromise to produce timely action on important long-term challenges, such as climate change, actions to renew and strengthen entitlement programmes in a fiscally responsible way, and reformulation of national security strategy, seem inconceivable.

It is tempting to blame all this on failures of leadership on the part of senior policy makers. And there are structural factors, such as increased polarisation of the electorate and the growing role of money in politics, that surely contribute.

Yet it is worth putting current concerns with how well Washington functions in the context of a stunning American political regularity. Second presidential terms are very difficult for the president and his team. Consider the history.

George W Bush’s second term began with a futile effort to reform social security, and was then defined by hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis. His most significant steps – big tax cuts, redefining the role of the federal government in education, prescription drug benefits and reorientation of national security strategy towards the threat of terrorism – took place during his first term.

Bill Clinton’s second term will be remembered for scandal and his impeachment. His most important legislative accomplishments – such as moves to balance the budget, reforms of welfare to support work rather than dependency and expansion of health benefits – took place in his first term.

Ronald Reagan’s second term was marked by the Iran-Contra scandal and a sense of a president who had become remote from much of the work of his administration. While the 1986 Tax Reform Act was a crucial step, his most important legacies – big cuts to tax and spending, deregulation, and a major defence build-up – largely occurred during his first term.

Richard Nixon’s second term was not completed because of his forced resignation over Watergate. The most important policy measures of his administration – the opening to China, withdrawal from Vietnam, the establishment of a significant federal role in environmental regulation – took place in his first term.

Dwight Eisenhower’s second term involved scandal that forced the resignation of his chief of staff and, more importantly, a growing sense that the country was suffering from a stifling complacency. It is hard to point to accomplishments that compare to the withdrawal from Korea and initiation of the interstate highway system during his first.

Harry Truman’s second term was marked by the Korean war, scandal, gridlock and extraordinarily low public approval. His important legacies – the Marshall plan, the establishment of the containment strategy, the postwar focus on strengthening the economy with measures such as the GI Bill and federal housing support – were products of his first term.

Franklin Roosevelt’s second term was the least successful part of his presidency, involving the failure of his effort to pack the Supreme Court and a significant economic relapse in 1938. He accomplished nothing remotely comparable to the New Deal or his wartime leadership.

And, of course, second terms have what may well be a substantial additional cost. A large part of what presidents do in their first terms, particularly the latter half, is directed at securing re-election.

Would American government function better if presidents were limited to one term, perhaps six years long? It is an issue worth debating. The historical record makes the case for change.

The reason against such a change is suggested by the term “lame duck”. Leaders nearing the end of their time in office lose the ability to influence other actors by offering future rewards and punishments. If this were the nub of the problem, removing the possibility of re-election would remove the president’s capacity to act even in a first term. My guess is that lame duck effects are much smaller than those caused by a toxic combination of hubris and exhaustion after the extraordinary effort involved in achieving re-election. But the issue requires study.

The belief that “this time will be different” usually precedes trouble, and so it has been with second terms. All re-elected presidents expect to beat the second-term curse. None has. And we have been governed by re-elected presidents for almost 40 per cent of the past century. Reform is overdue.

The writer is Charles W Eliot university professor at Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article