Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JUNE 2007

George Bush's troubles with Congress are no surprise when we recall the foreign policy problems recent two-term presidents faced in their last years in office.

Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan all had serious difficulties when Congress viewed them as "lame-ducks." After six years in office, most of them seemed tired and out of touch with much of the public. This could be called the "seventh year itch" in politics.

Let's look at the experiences of six presidents in their second terms.

Truman. The first postwar president was discredited because of the war in Korea, which he couldn't end through victory or negotiations. In 1952 voters turned to Eisenhower, who pledged to end the war, and elected Republican majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Eisenhower. The hero of World War II was a successful president until 1958, when the economy was in recession, and after the Soviet Union's stunning feat of putting the first satellite (sputnik) into orbit in late 1957. The public began to doubt America's ability to stay ahead of the Russians militarily, and congressional elections that fall gave Democrats large majorities in both the Senate and House. Eisenhower was unable to regain the initiative.

Johnson. As successor to the assassinated John Kennedy, Johnson's presidency was dominated by the Vietnam War, which he failed to end with either a military victory or a negotiated settlement. In 1968 a disillusioned electorate chose a Republican, Nixon, because he pledged to end the fighting. But they also elected large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

Nixon.. The former vice president (to Eisenhower) was driven from office because of his failure to end the Vietnam War quickly, and for illegal actions associated with the Watergate affair. The fact that Democrats controlled Congress led to impeachment proceedings and his resignation in 1974. In that year Democrats increased their majorities in Congress, and two years later they won back the White House (Jimmy Carter).

Reagan. In 1980 voters elected this ex-governor of California because of their frustration over high inflation and the Soviet Union's strategic gains during the 1970s. They also gave Republicans a solid majority in the Senate. In 1986, however, Democrats regained control of the Senate, and Reagan found himself in serious political trouble over of the Iran-Contra affair. His popularity with the public was the key to shielding him from potential impeachment proceedings.

Clinton. The charismatic former governor of Arkansas was elected in 1992 because the public was tired of twelve years of Republican rule. Although he won reelection in 1996, voters gave control of both houses of Congress to Republicans. In foreign policy, Clinton was criticized for his inaction in the face of terrorism in the Middle East. And, because of his public denial of dalliance with a White House intern, he was impeached by the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, Clinton ended his second term with high approval ratings.

What price does America pay in its foreign policy when presidents become lame-ducks? Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon ran into serious problems during their final two years when other governments began to question their ability to sustain a steady course in foreign policy.

Truman could not persuade North Korea and its Soviet backers to negotiate a cease-fire in Korea, because they concluded he would not be president for long. Soviet leaders decided not to deal with Eisenhower in his final year because of his tough policy on the U-2 incident. Johnson and Nixon encountered serious problems with Asian allies when they withdrew U.S. troops from Vietnam.

An intriguing question today is whether George Bush will end his presidency as a failure, or whether he can overcome his current difficulties. Will he, like Reagan and Clinton, regain public support when he turns over the counterinsurgency campaign to the Iraqi army and a smaller American force moves into a support role?

Bush's additional challenge is to build support among America's European and Arab allies for his policies in Iraq, Iran, and, not least, Palestine. The outcome depends, in large measure, on whether he persuades them that America will not abandon Iraq, despite mounting congressional pressure to do so.

File last modified on Monday, 11-JUNE-2007 4:18 PM EST

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