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Obama's second term: What history says to expect

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Grant was hobbled by the appointment of a Treasury secretary who turned out to be a crook. Reagan eventually took the blame for Iran-contra, though it's unclear how sharply he had focused on the issue.

Jefferson's problems with one member of his administration may have been in a class of their own: His first-term vice president, Aaron Burr, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later, after being jettisoned from the administration, was tried for treason for supposedly fomenting revolution on the Western frontier. The controversies surrounding Burr, and Jefferson's handling of them, no doubt affected his popularity.

Perils of divided government. Historians today praise a Monroe administration treaty with Britain that would have called slavery "piracy" as well as the president's efforts to keep native Americans on lands they inhabited. A hostile Congress rejected both.

The Senate killed one of Wilson's signature initiatives – American membership in the League of Nations. A Republican House blocked many of Clinton's legislative efforts.

Then there was F.D.R.

"He had a disastrous first half" to his second term, says Jeff Shesol, author of "Supreme Power," which chronicles F.D.R.'s fight with a hostile Congress and Supreme Court.

The root of F.D.R.'s problems had come in his first four years. The court had blocked so many of his New Deal programs that after reelection he concocted a plan to "pack" the court by increasing the number of justices. The Senate rejected his efforts.

Facing a deep recession in 1938, F.D.R. used the midterm elections to try purging the Senate of his enemies; the effort failed. "After that, the Senate was dead set against him," says Mr. Shesol. Fortunately for F.D.R., by 1939 Americans were preoccupied with war in Europe. Domestic worries receded.

"If it hadn't been for World War II," Shesol says, "we'd say he had a successful first term but the second was a squandered opportunity."

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