After their first two years in the White House, conventional political thinking says, presidents are supposed to turn to tough new challenges and use the State of the Union to rally the public behind them.
It’s the so-called presidential pivot.
The only problem is, presidents rarely pivot, and even when they try to, they rarely succeed. Don’t expect President Donald Trump to break the mold.
A survey of presidencies in the past 50 years underscores this basic reality. Presidents achieve most or all of their top goals in their first two years. By the third year of their first term in office, their domestic agendas began to stall. And those who win a second term seldom achieve much legislatively at home unless an emergency crops up.
Presidential historians cite a host of reasons. The public loses faith. Control of Congress changes hands. Administrations suffer major departures of key personnel. Domestic or international crises erupt and distract a president. And so on.
Trump, now entering his third year, already suffers from some of those ill effects.
For one thing, Democrats regained power in the House of Representatives this year for the first time since 2010. Many of Trump’s initial cabinet choices and other high-level officials have also departed, leaving gaping holes at the upper reaches of his administration.
Instead of “pivoting” to fresh issues tonight in his State of the Union address, Trump is expected to renew his push to pressure Democrats to agree to more spending on border security. Yet that was one of the president’s top campaign goals in 2016 and, judging by the recent government shutdown, could remain an unfinished one. Newly empowered Democrats see little reason to cave in.
Trump wouldn’t be the first president to end up in a stalemate on the domestic front. Here’s a brief look at how the most recent presidents fared after their first two years.
Aided by big majorities in Congress, Barack Obama signed a slew of laws in 2009 and 2010 that included a recession-fighting spending bill, stricter financial rules (Dodd-Frank) and a government-run health-care option famously known as Obamacare.
After Republicans recaptured Congress in the fall 2010 elections, Obama’s legislative agenda petered out. He resorted to executive action in his second term to accomplish his goals on immigration and the environment, some of which have been reversed by Trump.
George W. Bush
George W. Bush signed a pair of major tax cuts in his first two-and-a-half years in office. He also backed the first bipartisan overhaul of federal education law in decades (No Child Left Behind) and created a Medicare offshoot now known as Part D to help seniors pay for prescription drugs.
His domestic agenda began to fizzle halfway through his first term. Later efforts to reform Social Security in 2005 and immigration law in 2006 failed miserably. Bush spent most of his second term trying to stabilize a war-torn Iraq and cope with the onset of the Great Recession (2007-2009).
Bill Clinton raised taxes and cut spending in his first year in office in 1993. He also signed the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as bills providing health care for uninsured children (CHIPS) and unpaid medical leave for workers.
Yet a broader health-care bill to push the U.S. closer to universal coverage died in 1994 just a few months before Republicans seized full control of Congress.
Clinton was largely on the defensive in his second term, but he worked with Republicans to pass tighter welfare requirements in 1996 and to loosen Great Depression-era rules on banks in 1999. He might not have pursued those changes had Democrats retained congressional control.
Ronald Reagan is one of the few presidents in the past 50 years to sign major domestic legislation after his first two years in office. Bipartisan bills to reduce illegal immigration and reform the U.S. tax code were sent to the president for his signature in 1996 during his second term in office.
In both cases the impetus for the change originated in Congress and the White House was less involved. Reagan campaigned in 1984 largely on a revival of the U.S. economy and what he called “morning in America.”