Sept. 30, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

How Second-Term Presidents Scratch the 6-Year Itch

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address was dominated by Iraq and national security, with the president showing an unapologetic approach to an unpopular conflict.

At the start of 1974, just over one year after being re-elected in a landslide over Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., Nixon was barely holding onto power because of the Watergate scandal engulfing his administration. Yet Nixon delivered a confident speech, listing accomplishments such as the thawing relations with China, environmental victories and cutting the defense budget. He dismissed “the perennial prophets of gloom” who predicted a recession and referred to “these final three years of my administration” and “the eight years of my presidency.” He even wrapped himself in the cloak of his mortal enemy from 1960: “It was 27 years ago that John F. Kennedy and I sat in this chamber, as freshmen congressmen hearing our first State of the Union address delivered by Harry Truman. I know from my talks with him, as members of the Labor Committee on which we both served, that neither of us then even dreamed that either one or both might eventually be standing in this place that I now stand and that he once stood in, before me.”

Nixon saved his statement about Watergate having gone on long enough for the very end of his address, and also freely admitted, “It would be an understatement if I were not to admit that the year 1973 was not a very easy year for me personally or for my family.”

The worst was yet to come. Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, and the GOP, already in the minority, endured a bludgeoning, further solidifying Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats gained dozens of seats, almost cracking 300 on the strength of the Watergate Babies class (they won 292 seats on Election Day) and pushed their Senate majority to 60, then 61 after the contested New Hampshire contest was settled and Democrat John Durkin was sworn in on Sept. 18, 1975.

In 1986, Reagan helped steady a nation shaken by the Challenger explosion and used his State of the Union to praise the American public while damning the capital, a playbook that remains in heavy rotation today.

“Let us begin where storm clouds loom darkest — right here in Washington, D.C.,” the Gipper said, even as he praised the “American people” who “brought us back with quiet courage and common sense, with undying faith that in this nation under God the future will be ours” — with a healthy mixture of a strong defense, tax cuts and a taming of the federal government. He also brought along four regular citizens — Richard Cavoli, Tyrone Ford, Shelby Butler and Trevor Ferrell — to hold up as exemplars of the American spirit for their talent, courage and compassion.

Nine months later, the Senate majority that Republicans won on his coattails in 1980 vanished, with the GOP’s 53 seats supplanted by the Democrats’ 55. In the House, Democrats added a few seats to their majority. Any congressional control of the agenda for the president’s party was over for the last two years of his term, which was quickly defined by the Iran-Contra affair and the 1988 presidential race.

Scandal can quickly drag down second-term presidents, and Clinton certainly had his share, starting with Whitewater and later the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Just the day before the 1998 State of the Union, Clinton had denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was expanding his investigation to include the Lewinsky issue.

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