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Obama's second term: What history says to expect

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According to Waldman, back then Clinton was taken with the ideas of Yale University historian Stephen Skowronek. Waldman remembers Clinton arguing that the best-remembered presidents "are those who take bold stands to upend the existing order."

OK, but how?

First, some background.

* * *

Those 21 second-termers include three presidents who were elected to second terms but didn't complete them, either because of assassination (Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley) or resignation (Richard Nixon). It also includes four who assumed the office after the death of a sitting president and then were elected to a second term (Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson).

Second-termers aren't sprinkled evenly throughout American history. Five of the first seven US presidents won second terms: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson.

In the 100 years between Jackson and F.D.R., the US only had seven. But in the past 32 years, it's had four out of the last five: Ronald Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama – only George H.W. Bush missed out.

When it comes to the last half century, the second-term curse might seem real. For several of the seven modern second-term presidents, a single image of failure overshadowed many of their achievements:

•Clinton, before impeachment proceedings, looks straight into the TV cameras to utter the most famous line of his presidency: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

•Nixon, hands held high, fingers spread in a V-for-victory sign, boards a helicopter on the White House lawn to leave the White House, the first and only president to have resigned in office.

[Editor's noteThe original version of this story wrongly said Nixon was impeached. He resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment.] 

•Johnson, eligible to run for president again but so unpopular he is about to lose the Wisconsin primary to little-known Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, announces on TV, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

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