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Obama's second term: What history says to expect

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Even generally successful presidents have faced humiliating episodes: for Reagan, the Iran-contra scandal; for Dwight Eisenhower, the U-2 spy plane episode. But there's a difference between difficulty and debacle.

"Generalizations are tricky," says Mr. Greenberg, whose 2003 book, "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image," examined one second-termer. "When we start looking at the evidence, there's not a lot to substantiate the notion."

How can you distinguish between the problems presidents encounter in every term and ones that discredit the entire four years? What's the standard for gauging any president's success?

Even those who have tried to develop measures are cautious about generalizing. In their book, "Addressing the State of the Union," University of Northern Iowa professor Donna Hoffman and Dominican University of California assistant professor Alison Howard use one such tool: calculating how many legislative requests presidents make of Congress – and how many get adopted in the next session.

Critics often deride State of the Union messages – "empty rhetoric," some said after last year's. In fact, modern presidents include specific calls for congressional action – the median is about 31, according to Ms. Hoffman and Ms. Howard, ranging from Carter's 1979 low of nine to Clinton's 2000 high of 87.

On the surface, the numbers might seem to substantiate the difficulties of a second term. Hoffman and Howard's research shows 43 percent of the requests are passed in some form – 51 percent in a first term and only 38.6 percent in the second.

But the issue is more complicated than that, especially when considering early presidents. The nation's early leaders weren't much concerned with legislative requests. Not until Woodrow Wilson did the notion emerge of presidents as what Hoffman calls "legislators in chief."

"When measuring success, I'm not concerned about whether Jefferson got Congress to do what he wanted," she says. "[To him] it would have been anathema."

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