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Obama's second term: What history says to expect

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"Yes, the Soviets were [getting] weaker and knew it," says Mr. Judge, now managing director of White House Writers Group, a consulting firm. "Star wars figured into this by making a first-strike capacity obsolete." He describes a variety of early Reagan-era moves strengthening NATO. "All contributed to the realization of how tenuous their position was."

Judge also argues forcefully for other Reagan second-term achievements: "tax reform, holding the line on spending, [supporting] a large number of countries to move from despotism to democracy, and fidelity to judicial restraint."

When Hoffman and Howard measure success, they do it from the view of the president. But a 12 percent difference between first- and second-term legislative success doesn't seem enough to warrant a term like "curse" – or determine whether second-term presidents fail or just falter.

One interesting take on the issue comes not from a professional historian but an Indiana real estate agent, Alfred Zacher, whose lifelong passion has been the study of second terms. His self-published book tries to catalog whether presidential second terms were "successful," "troubled," or "failed." He counts only five failures: Grant, Cleveland, Johnson, Nixon, and Bush.

The problems that recurrently surface for presidents – whether in their first term or second – seem to be the same four:

Unpopular wars. Truman in Korea, Johnson and Nixon in Vietnam, and Bush in Iraq – their second terms all included war or military action Americans disliked.

Bad economies. The 1987 stock market crash hurt Reagan, and the broader economic collapse in 2008 marred Bush's legacy. But the 1873 and 1893 recessions in Grant's and Cleveland's respective second terms were enormous setbacks, too.

Personal scandal or corruption. The Monica Lewinsky affair led to Clinton's impeachment, and Nixon's ordering of the Watergate coverup resulted in his impeachment and resignation.

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