Obama and the Second-Term Curse

The president is on the defensive over Benghazi, the IRS and now the AP.

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Suddenly, President Obama is fighting the perception of scandal and being forced to play defense just when he had hoped to take the offensive on immigration reform, climate change, the budget and gun control.

The trouble is that Obama is being thrown off stride by rising criticisms over Benghazi, abuses by the Internal Revenue Service and, most recently, the Justice Department's seizing of phone records from the Associated Press.

Actually, Obama's plight fits into a historical pattern. A number of modern presidents also have experienced serious problems in their second terms just as is happening now to Obama. Some historians call it the "second term curse," and it happens when re-elected presidents or their aides overreach, succumb to hubris, make particularly stupid mistakes or lose touch with the country.

[READ: Republicans Pounce on IRS, Benghazi]

Obama's current problems include the IRS's admission that the agency targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny when they sought tax exemptions in the run up to the 2012 election. Simultaneously, congressional Republicans are livid over conflicting administration explanations for why four Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last Sept. 11.

President Barack Obama gestures during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Monday, May 13, 2013, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama gestures during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Monday, May 13, 2013, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Still another flashpoint erupted as the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department had seized records of phone calls to and from the AP's offices and phone calls involving individual journalists over a two-month period in an apparent effort to find leakers of sensitive information.

The income-tax issue appeared to be the most inflammatory and potentially damaging to the White House. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told Fox News that the IRS scandal, coupled with Benghazi and other issues, amounts to an "abuse of power" and reveals a "credibility gap."

At a news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron Monday, Obama minimized the Benghazi furor, calling it "a sideshow." But he said he was troubled by the IRS story. If it's true, it's "outrageous and there's no place for it," Obama said.

[READ: Bipartisanship Rings Out on Capitol Hill and the White House Over IRS Scandal]

These scandals or potential scandals are likely to stoke conservative anger and help motivate voters on the right to turn out at the polls in the mid-term elections of 2014.

And there is the matter of the second-term curse, which has emerged with startling regularity over the years. Richard Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan was damaged by the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986. Bill Clinton was impeached because of the Monica Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal in 1998. George W. Bush was hurt by mismanagement of the Iraq war and by his administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But White House officials dispute the notion of a second-term curse. "Partisan investigations by the Republicans have been a part of daily life around here since the Republicans took over the House in 2011," senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer told the Washington Post. "Every time they jump up and down and scream, "Watergate!' they end up with egg on their faces. I don't see this as a second-term phenomenon. It's just life with the GOP in charge."

More News:

  • Opinion: An 'Outrageous' Act at the IRS
  • Tea Party Groups Want Congress to Investigate IRS's 'Abuse of Power'
  • Lawmakers Say IRS Still Silent on Reading Citizen Emails Without a Warrant
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.