Who Was the Last President to Have a Great Second Term?

by Burt on November 26, 2012

Calvin Coolidge (1925-1929). Since Coolidge only served part of a first term (after Harding died), his case is unusual. But Coolidge finished his second term with the lowest misery index (unemployment plus inflation) of any president in the last one hundred years. He lowered tax rates, cut federal spending, and had budget surpluses every year of his presidency.

Seven presidents since Coolidge (Obama will be the eighth) had second terms, and these second terms showed mixed success at best and more often disastrous problems.

FDR in his second term tried packing the Supreme Court. And when the Senate shot that down, he then tried “purging” those Democrats who opposed him by campaigning against them for re-election. However, almost all of his Democratic opponents won anyway. The next two-termer was Harry Truman, who fought the Korean War during his second term, and ended his presidency with almost the lowest approval ratings in modern U.S. history. Eisenhower had a recession in his second term, and his party lost 47 seats in the off-year elections during that beleaguered term. Nixon, of course, had to resign during his second term. Reagan’s second term was a mixture of good policies and the problems of Iran Contra. Clinton was impeached during his last years in office. George W. Bush lost control of both the House and the Senate during his second term, and his approval ratings were barely better than Nixon’s and Truman’s.

Unlike most of our last seven two-term presidents, Coolidge did not get a big head when he was re-elected—even though he won in a landslide vote. He did not try to expand the federal government, and when others tried, he vetoed their bills. Under Coolidge, and his predecessor Warren Harding, the federal budget was cut in half and tax rates were slashed across the board. Most Americans under Coolidge paid no income tax at all, and yet revenue from income taxes increased because the economy expanded so rapidly under his quiet, but effective leadership.

In the 1800s, those two-term presidents who, like Coolidge, supported limited government often had successful presidencies as well. Andrew Jackson, for example, cut federal spending so effectively in his second term that the U.S. for the only time in its history eliminated its entire national debt and began running budget surpluses. President Grant, in his second term, signed a bill called the Specie Resumption Act that backed our Civil War greenbacks with gold—a bold move that protected our nation from inflation.

President Obama seems determined to do much expanding of the federal debt during his second term, but the history of the presidency over the last hundred years tells us that those presidents who do that do so at their peril. Calvin Coolidge may not be glamorous, but he fared well by stressing freedom for his countrymen, not “signature spending programs” to “enhance his legacy.”

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