George W. Bush is now facing the legacy of Richard M. Nixon. Only two other presidents have won re-election since Tricky Dick resigned in disgrace amid the Watergate scandal in 1974 and both of them--Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton--found their second terms mired in scandal. So what will be Mr. Bush's fate two years on? Will he be well on his way to reforming Social Security and the tax code? Or will scandal consume his presidency too?
The answer rests in the origins of the curse of the second term. Lackluster second terms pre-date Nixon, of course. George Washington's first term was pivotal, but his second is most remembered only for his farewell address. James Madison's second term saw the British burn the White House. But what changed with Nixon's resignation is that journalists realized they could bring down a sitting president. It doesn't matter now whether the corruption (and any bureaucracy as large as the federal government contains corruption) actually leads to the Oval Office. The knives are out and, electoral mandates notwithstanding, presidents are most vulnerable after they have a first term record to pick through.
...To beat the media gotcha game, the president might want to consider a little advice sometimes given to new elementary school teachers: Keep them busy or they will keep you busy. Mr. Bush might succeed with his interesting and ambitious second-term agenda precisely because he has an interesting and ambitious agenda. Just keeping up with what is new in government will be work enough. In the coming years we may find that mini-scandals never become big scandals because the public is clamoring to know what is happening with substantive policy changes that will affect their everyday lives.