In his book, "Presidential Power in Troubled Second Terms," presidential scholar Alfred Zacher concluded that only one president had a truly better second term than his first: James Madison, president from 1809-1817.
In Madison's first term, the still-new nation was drawn back into armed conflict with Britain in the War of 1812. But in Madison's second term , the U.S. scored a dramatic victory in the Battle of New Orleans and the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent. Madison's popularity surged.
Seven others had OK second terms despite setbacks, Zacher wrote, most recently Dwight Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton.
Reagan, despite Iran-Contra, oversaw a major 1986 simplification of the tax code and the unraveling of the Soviet Union in his second term. Clinton learned how to reach across the aisle to deal with Republicans on welfare overhaul and deficit reduction and left office with an annual budget surplus — an achievement no other president since Andrew Jackson can claim.
James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said that by the end of a first term, "The American people have gotten to know the president very well. The enthusiasm of his first election is long gone. That limits the possibility of great success in the second term."
Also, presidents who were just re-elected can get overconfident from their victories, see their elections as a "mandate" to push their agendas, start believing re-election campaign hype and surround themselves with many burned-out senior staffers and inexperienced younger ones, suggests Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was Reagan's chief of staff.
"Add to this too much communal drinking from the same Kool-Aid, and it is a recipe for disaster for any second-term president," Duberstein wrote. "All of us who have served in second-term White Houses have seen this witch's brew."
President George W. Bush claimed "political capital" from his 2004 re-election win and "I intend to spend it." But it was a losing investment. He got little done in his second term.
Thomas Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College, said Obama's time to wield influence is limited and he needs strike quickly.
A year or two into a president's second term, "people say, well, let's just wait this guy out," Cronin said." That's why the next six to ten months are so crucial."
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