Professor Michael Nelson, an expert on the American presidency, joins Transition Lab to discuss the political dynamics that define a president’s first and second term. Nelson explains how new presidents can maximize their impact during their first year in office and outlines the challenges two-term presidents face during their fifth year. 

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In reflecting on the Clinton Administration and insights from his book, “Clinton’s Elections: 1992, 1996, and the Birth of a New Era of Governance,” Nelson noted: 

“[Clinton] was often stumbling through much of that first year. Clinton is somebody who has a vast capacity to learn from experience, and in particular, learn from his mistakes. In some ways, that’s the best quality a first-year president can have, because you have never done this job or a job quite like it.” 

Dave: Looking back on modern presidential history, what, which president would you say had the most significant or consequential first year? And why?” 

Michael: “That’s a great question, and I’ll answer it in two ways. If you look at which recent president had the most consequential first year in terms of accomplishing what he said during the campaign, that would be Ronald Reagan who managed to get through a democratic Congress. [He passed] a massive tax cut, reductions in domestic spending, a massive increase in defense spending, which were exactly the things they had talked about during the campaign. His first year worked out in a way that fulfilled the expectations that he brought to the office.  

“No president was caught more off guard by virtue of preparation than George W. Bush with 9/11. He had run for office on domestic issues. He had spent the first seven or eight months of his presidency focusing on domestic issues: tax cuts, education and so on. And then boom, two planes crashed into the world trade center in New York. Another point crashes into the Pentagon. And as he realized almost instantaneously, I’m a wartime president and this is what my presidency is going to be about.” 

Nelson explained his interest in second terms, noting that, 

Michael: “It’s really hard to think of any, perhaps not any, presidents who have served two terms and whose second terms have been as successful as their first. And that’s not to say no president has had a successful second term. But in almost every case, maybe in every case, there’s been a falloff in performance. So why is that? Especially given that the president has now had four years of experience in the office, what is it about second terms that usually leads to a falling off and performance? 

Dave: Why is that? What is unique about the challenges that a second term president faces? 

Michael: “I think in some ways, the seeds of second term disappointment are sowed in the campaign for reelection. So, if you’re a president running for a second term, basically you have two plays in the playbook. One is to turn it into a referendumif you liked my first term, a vote for me again. The other is to turn it into a choice, meaning if you haven’t particularly liked my first term, the guy who’s running against me would be even worse. Those are the two plays in the playbook. Neither one of them is really laying the foundation for a second term agenda.