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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.

Clinton delivered an address that ranged from nitty-gritty policy proposals such as calling for a renewal of fast-track trade negotiating authority to his trumpeting of his balanced budget.

His praise of members of Congress and the public were reminiscent of Reagan’s sunny ways. “We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way,” Clinton said.

What was to come that year in Congress wasn’t pretty. The impeachment debate largely took over, culminating in December with the House impeaching the president. In February 1999, the Senate acquitted him.

That impeachment fight, though, did not prevent Clinton’s party from increasing their share of seats in the House — from 207 at the beginning of the 105th Congress to 211 on Election Day 1998 — and holding steady in the Senate. The Democrats were still in the minority, but they avoided the historical trend of losses for the president’s party in his second round of congressional midterms. In the fallout, Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., resigned his seat. The irony is a stunning one: The impeached president stayed in office, was acquitted and saw his party gain House seats. His chief rival, Gingrich, headed for the private sector.

In 2004, Bush pulled off what eluded his father, George H.W. Bush: winning re-election. But by 2006, the war in Iraq and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina cast a pall over his State of the Union. The emphasis on Iraq and national security dominated Bush’s address, with the president showing an unapologetic approach to an unpopular conflict.

“In the coming year, I will continue to reach out and seek your good advice. Yet there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom, and second-guessing is not a strategy,” he said.

And although there were moments of levity, such as his reference to Clinton as one of his father’s favorite people, and some policy wonkdom (he called for more research into turning switchgrass into an energy source), the speech was weighted toward security concerns. New Orleans, still drying out and pulling itself together after Katrina and its subsequent floods, wasn’t mentioned until the very end of the speech, almost an afterthought.

In November, the voters took it out on Bush’s party, deposing the majority GOP in both chambers in favor of a solid Democratic majority of 232 seats and a razor-thin, 51-49, Democratic majority in the Senate.

As President Barack Obama addresses the nation Tuesday night, he’ll have an audience at his disposal that few public figures ever attain: the eyes and ears of the country and its most powerful figures. The millions of Americans listening to the speech — and their immediate reactions — will certainly be on his mind. The historical judgment will have to wait until November.

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