So far, there has been no second-term jinx for George W. Bush—no debilitating scandal or the kind of sudden crisis that has damaged late-term presidencies many times in the past. But it's also clear that, compared with the past two presidents who served eight years (Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Ronald Reagan), the record of Bush's final months in office doesn't stack up very well, partly because he has failed to demonstrate the flexibility of his predecessors in dealing with changing circumstances.
Reagan had built a reservoir of goodwill and credibility with the American people, so he was able to weather the storm over the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal. In his second term, he scored a string of successes, including the negotiation and congressional passage of key strategic arms and trade agreements. More importantly, he built a historic partnership with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the nation that Reagan once called "the evil empire." During his landmark Moscow summit meeting with Gorbachev in May 1988, Reagan admitted that the U.S.S.R. was no longer the international threat he had fought against for so long. Asked by a reporter during a walkabout on the Kremlin grounds about his earlier condemnation, Reagan replied, "I was talking about another time, another era."
Staying in touch. The transformation in this lifelong cold warrior's attitude reduced superpower tensions and, at minimum, helped create the conditions that led to the unraveling of Soviet communism not long after Reagan left office. This flexibility had tangible political results at home. Six months before he left office, 51 percent of Americans approved of Reagan's job performance, according to the Gallup Poll, compared with only about 30 percent who approve of Bush's performance today.
"Ronald Reagan stayed on his agenda and communicated with the American people," says Ken Duberstein, Reagan's former White House chief of staff. "The American people believed in him and trusted him, and he rebuilt his presidency from the ashes of Iran-contra." In the end, most Americans felt he was moving the country in the right direction, with the nation at peace and the economy humming along.
Bill Clinton's actions—such as balancing the budget, fighting crime, and using military force in a very limited way overseas to promote democracy and U.S. interests—remained popular even as Americans condemned his personal misbehavior when he had an affair with a former White House intern and lied about it under oath. In December 1998, he was impeached by the House of Representatives after a grueling year of scandal and investigation. But in February 1999, the Senate acquitted him and refused to remove him from office.
As with Reagan, Clinton had built up substantial goodwill and credibility because his policies connected with everyday Americans, and this enabled him to survive. Americans thought that even if his personal character was deeply flawed, Clinton understood their problems and was working hard to improve their lives. Unable to get big legislative packages through a Republican-controlled Congress, he adjusted, resorting to smaller initiatives, such as support for the use of student uniforms to encourage discipline in the schools and putting thousands more police officers on the streets to fight crime. In August 2000, five months before leaving office, Clinton's job-approval rating was 58 percent.
Contrast all this with George W. Bush. "Bush is the point of departure," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "The one thing in this election that people know is they don't want any more" of his policies. White House advisers say that Bush is proud of his achievements this year on matters such as obtaining congressional approval of legislation authorizing eavesdropping on suspected terrorists, winning the endorsement of $162 billion in war funding for Afghanistan and Iraq, and blocking what he considers unwise constraints on commanders in the field. "We feel good going into the homestretch," a senior adviser says.
But his stubbornness on the Iraq war and in taking only limited measures to deal with the sour economy is dragging him down. Bush realizes his poll numbers are dismal, of course, but one of his senior strategists says, "His view is history will judge, and the major decisions of his presidency will stand the test of time."
That may be a false optimism. Compared with Clinton and Reagan, Bush is lagging far behind. The big reason is that the country is at war and the economy is in big trouble, and he has been unwilling or unable to fix the situation. That's a shaky foundation on which to build a positive legacy. Overall, his plight might not stem from a scandal or a crisis, but it amounts to a second-term slump nonetheless.