Second-term curse

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The second-term curse is the perceived tendency of second terms of recent U.S. presidents to be less successful than their first terms.[1][2] According to the "curse", the second terms of recent presidents have usually been plagued by a major scandal, policy inertia, some sort of catastrophe, or other problems.[3][4][5] The legend behind the second term curse is the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the de facto 2nd term limit by running for third and fourth terms. Some people have said they believe that, in response, the ghost of George Washington might have put a curse on any president who seeks a 2nd term.[4][5]

Whether this perceived tendency is real is a subject of dispute: for example, political statistician Nate Silver, after analyzing presidential approval ratings for Harry S. Truman through Barack Obama, did find that approval ratings were lower on average during second terms, but he also found a variety of other reasons to explain those ratings, and he concluded that "the idea of the second-term curse is sloppy as an analytical concept".[6] In addition, political writer Michael Barone cited several presidents who had successful second-terms, and wrote that "second-term problems resulted more often from the failure to adjust to changed circumstances and unanticipated challenges".[7]

Presidents of the curse

President Second term Attributable event(s)
Franklin D. Roosevelt Franklin D. Roosevelt 1937–1941 Failure of the "court-packing plan"[1]
100px Harry S. Truman 1949–1953[note 1] Korean War[2]
Dwight D. Eisenhower Dwight D. Eisenhower 1957–1961 Overcoat scandal[1]
1960 U-2 incident[1][5]
Lyndon B. Johnson Lyndon B. Johnson 1965–1969[note 1] Vietnam War[2]
Reaction to the Great Society[2]
Urban riots and the Kerner Commission[2]
Richard Nixon Richard Nixon 1973–1974[note 2] Watergate scandal[2][4]
Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan 1985–1989 Iran–Contra affair[1][4]
Bill Clinton Bill Clinton 1997–2001 Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment[1][4]
George W. Bush George W. Bush 2005–2009 Failure of Social Security reform[3]
Hurricane Katrina[8]
Financial crisis of 2008[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Was technically serving his first full term after finishing out the term of his predecessor, who died in office.
  2. Became the first president to resign the office


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Clymer, Adam (November 7, 2012). "Triumphant Obama Faces New Foe in 'Second-Term Curse'". New York Times. Retrieved November 9, 2012. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Broder, David (January 20, 2005). "Fending Off the 'Second-Term Curse'". Washington Post. Retrieved November 9, 2012. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Fournier, Ron (November 6, 2012). "5 Reasons Why Obama and Romney Will Get No Mandate". National Journal. Retrieved November 9, 2012. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 "Bush sets out to salvage 2nd term". USA Today. October 31, 2005. Retrieved November 9, 2012. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Duberstein, Kenneth M. (October 29, 2005). "Breaking the second-term curse". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 9, 2012. 
  6. Silver, Nate (May 16, 2013). "Is There Really a Second-Term Curse?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-05-19. My view, then, is that the idea of the second-term curse is sloppy as an analytical concept. There is certainly a historical tendency for presidents who earn a second term to become less popular — but some of this reflects reversion to the mean. And some recent presidents have overcome the supposed curse and actually become more popular on average during their second terms. 
  7. Barone, Michael (January 20, 2013). "Unlucky (Lame) Ducks?". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2013-01-20. 
  8. "Like Predecessors, Bush Has Second-Term Blues". Wall Street Journal. October 29, 2005. Retrieved November 9, 2012.