Opinion

Jack Shafer

Does anyone actually believe in a ‘second-term curse’?

Jack Shafer
Jan 24, 2013 14:52 UTC

Just as farmers plant and reap with the seasons, political journalists consult the calendar for the best time to scatter seed and harvest, with second-term inaugurations being the preferred juncture to deploy temple-tapping discussions of the “second-term curse,” the notion that special doom awaits any modern president who wins the White House a second time.

Like most predictions, this one is for suckers. To begin with, the definition of a second-term curse has become so elastic that anything from a few policy setbacks to death can be interpreted as fulfillment of the curse. Even the definition of a second term has been debased by those who call vice presidents who complete a dead president’s term and win one on their own — Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman  and Lyndon Johnson — two-termers.

Also, as David Greenberg recently argued in The New Republic, the audit of supposedly failed second terms usually neglects to mention the triumphs, such as President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy successes in Kosovo and Northern Ireland in his second term, President George W. Bush’s winding down of the Iraq war in his second and President Ronald Reagan’s retreat from “Strangelovean apocalypticism” that created a soft-landing place for the collapsing Soviet empire.

Sifting Nexis, we learn that most of the talking heads and writers contemplating the curse in the past couple of weeks have done so to refute it. Writing in The Atlantic, legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar points out that “the idea of a second-term curse fails to account for basic probability,” that the curse is probably more about the regression to the mean than anything else. At Bloomberg View, Al Hunt rejects the curse in his first paragraph. Historian Douglas Brinkley has debunked the curse as mythology in multiple venues in the past week (CBS This Morning, WSJ Live, the New York Times and CNN), as did Doris Kearns Goodwin on Meet the Press and The Today Show (“I think we’ve made too much of second-term curses”).

Two guys with White House experience, David Plouffe and Joe Lockhart, gave the curse a gentle nahhhh brush-off this week, while a pair of Clinton administration insiders, Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, came closest to giving the curse a full-frontal embrace this week with their USA Today op-ed that blamed botched second terms on the “scandal-industrial complex.” In their view, the complex — equal part press, bad public servants who embarrass the president and hyper-partisans who exploit presidential miscues — can be neutralized by a White House practiced in damage control: First, confess to mistakes made; next, avoid panic; and finally, maintain the president’s power-enhancing credibility.

Why we can’t stop watching the stupid presidential debates

Jack Shafer
Sep 28, 2012 22:30 UTC

The 2012 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates, a four-part miniseries, will debut on televisions and computer screens around the world on Oct. 3 and continue weekly through the month. The program will feature presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in three episodes, and their understudies, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, in one.

I can’t promise excitement or even enlightenment: As viewers of The 2008 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates and its antecedents will recall, the events resemble 90-minute quiz shows in which there are no correct answers, just strong opinions. We come to the debates expecting dramatic oratory and political persuasion, but don’t even get a spritz of hot air. That’s because the debates are primarily designed to unite, not divide.

Highly formatted to begin with, this year’s debates will be even more highly formatted, as Elizabeth Flock reported last week in U.S. News & World Report. The Commission on Presidential Debates – the cutout the two major parties have been using to run the debates since 1988 – has for the first time issued cheat sheets to the candidates listing what topics will be up for debate in their first meeting: the economy, healthcare, the role of government and governing. This will make the study and rehearsal sessions, in which the candidates spend hours practicing their debate sound bites, a lot easier.

President Obama loses his sense of balance

Jack Shafer
Aug 9, 2012 23:03 UTC

President Barack Obama, like many of us, dislikes much of what he drinks from the news spigot. As the New York Times reported this week:

Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

Before I continue, I’ll give you just a moment to guess which of the two opposing sides the president thinks is being given “equal weight” but does not deserve it. Need a little more time? Just another second? O.K.…time’s up! The president thinks the press is allowing his unworthy, mendacious Republican opponents to nullify the truths he speaks from the Oval Office. Obama has expressed these views in meetings with columnists on both the left and the right, according to the Times. It peeves him when reporters give equal weight to both sides when one side is factually incorrect and when they blame both parties when one party is to blame. Obama’s specific beef, it seems, is coverage of health insurance legislation and the stimulus package.

Another president is reorganizing government. Again.

Jack Shafer
Jan 17, 2012 01:18 UTC

Newly elected presidents call for the reorganization of the federal government with such regularity that a federal Department of Reorganization should be established to assist them in their attempts to downsize the bureaucracy, eliminate redundant agencies, reduce red tape, cut costs, and tame the out-of-control agencies created and fed by the presidents elected before them. If you’re earnest enough to think that those moves will actually reduce the size or cost of federal government, I’ve got a monument I’d like to sell you.

President Barack Obama originally promised to streamline federal bureaucracy in his 2011 State of the Union speech but only got around to specifics last Friday, as he requested new powers to merge agencies subject to an up-or-down vote by Congress. Obama’s first target: the Commerce Department. He wants to meld the Small Business Administration and five additional trade and business agencies into one body that would replace the Department of Commerce. Obama promised savings of $3 billion over the next decade and to cut 1,000 to 2,000 jobs through attrition over the same period.

The presidential urge to reorganize goes back to Theodore Roosevelt, who established the Keep Commission in 1905 to bring efficiency and accountability to bureaucracy. Scholar Oscar Kraines admiringly called Roosevelt’s attempt to remake Washington in his image “a bold step … to break down the long-existing aim and the tendency of Congress to retain full legislative authority in the management of the public business.” According to political scientist Peri E. Arnold, 11 of 14 presidents elected in the 20th century attempted some sort of governmental reorganization. Congress rightly viewed the Keep Commission as a presidential power grab and has continued to contest similar presidential reorg plans by Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, the Bushes and Bill Clinton — who called his reorganization plan “reinventing government.”

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