On Leadership: Second-Term Presidents

In a revealing discussion about the challenges of 2nd term presidencies, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Jackson Foundation convened a panel that looked at the Obama 2nd term through the lens of the Clinton and Reagan presidencies.  Sandy Berger, National Security Advisor to President Bill Clinton and Kenneth Duberstein, White House Chief of Staff in the late Reagan tenure, joined USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page for a discussion moderated by John Fortier of BPC’s Democracy Project and an expert himself in 2nd term presidencies.

John Hempelmann

John Hempelmann, President of the Jackson Foundation, set the tone for the dialogue by noting Scoop Jackson’s reputation for problem-solving across the aisle and posing the question as to whether a president from one political party, in his lame duck term, could work successfully with a Congress led by the rival party. This led to some discussion of how a president shapes his legacy while in office.  Duberstein felt that one key to success was keeping policy goals paramount.  He said that President Reagan was not thinking about his legacy when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” but rather was committed to promoting liberty and freedom for the citizens of the Soviet Union. Sandy Berger, who worked closely with President Clinton on foreign policy matters, agreed that presidents should not be thinking about their legacy, but rather “focus on getting things done.”  There was general consensus that “legacy building” while a president was in office was counterproductive.  “Legacies are written after the fact,” as Berger put it.

Sandy Berger
Ken Duberstein and Sandy Berger

Ken Duberstein emphasized the importance of relationships forged in the early days of a presidency as bearing fruit in the later, more challenging years.  “It matters what the president did in the first years of his presidency, in terms of what happens in the last two years.”  He was particularly critical of President Obama for what he called a lack of relationship building in Congress in his first term. “This hurts him now,” he argued.

Susan Page
Susan Page

Susan Page agreed that presidents facing the waning years of their tenure do not generally have a natural inclination toward bipartisanship and yet “want to have an impact.”  She said that they ask themselves what is meaningful to them that they could realistically accomplish, giving the example of Iran policy in terms of one of President Obama’s “big goals.” Berger agreed, arguing that Iran, Cuba, and the strategic re-balance to Asia present opportunities for Obama to find major policy accomplishments in his final two years.

Part of the challenge for presidents at this late stage  is gaining traction with the press. Page noted the tendency of the media to focus on the 2016 election and away from the current president.  “It is difficult to combat the big story, difficult for a president in his second term to get the attention of the media,” she concluded.

This program is one of a series by the Foundation focusing on bipartisanship, including briefings about political discourse in Washington State.  Other programs with the Bipartisan Policy Center include a discussion of Congress, foreign policy and the challenge of bipartisanship and a dialogue between two former Senate Majority leaders about how they forged a civil relationship.  The 1 ½ hour program on 2nd Term Presidencies can be viewed here.

Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director

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