Al Zacher's success as an expert on the second terms of U.S. Presidents began with Thomas Jefferson's failure.
When Zacher read “The Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson,” by Henry Adams, around 1986, he was surprised to learn that Jefferson — a president revered among Americans — had a terrible second term.
“The second term was a problem for Roosevelt, Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, too,” Zacher said. “I thought, 'Maybe there is something special about the second term that should be studied.'”
Although Zacher is best known around Fort Wayne for his commercial real estate signs, he is a self-proclaimed “presidential junkie.” With the help of IPFW Political Science Professor Elliot Bartky, Zacher spent about eight years studying the 19 presidents who were elected to second terms.
He found that most presidents were not successful in their second terms because they failed to establish themselves as political power holders, or they rested on first-term accomplishments.
“Presidents who were successful in their second terms conquered the idea of being a 'lame duck' and the idea of 'resting on your oars,'” Zacher said.
He self-published his findings in his 1996 book “Trial and Triumph: Presidential Power in the Second Term,” which rose to national prominence when President Bill Clinton, heading into his second term at the time, read and referred to the book during his first press conference after the 1996 election.
As President Obama prepares to run for his second term in office, Zacher published a new book Jan. 30 called “Presidential Power: In Troubled Second Terms — a revised version of his original book with added chapters on Clinton, President George W. Bush and an epilogue about Obama.
In the book's new conclusion, Zacher rates eight of the 19 multi-term presidents successful.
“I let the facts tell me what the conclusions are; I don't impose conclusions on the facts,” Zacher said, adding that he tries to remain as nonpartisan as possible.
He evaluates the presidents on six criteria he calls key determinants of second-term success:
•Defense against foreign or domestic threat
•Ability to retain or expand economic opportunity
•Ability to lead Congress•Avoiding a spirit of invincibility•Ability to effectively communicate
•Ability to strengthen the nation
After explaining the six criteria, Zacher provides brief histories on each of the multi-term presidents, examining their accomplishments and failures. At the end of the book, he ranks the effectiveness of each president and invites readers to do the same in an online survey at www.presidentialsecondterms.com.
Overall, Zacher says a president's ability to manage Congress is one of the most important criteria for a successful sequel.
“From (George) Washington's time, Congress — regardless of party — has attempted to be an equal or dominant institution to the executive branch,” Zacher said. “In that competitive battle, if Congress wins out as the dominant branch, it's a measure of failure for the president.”
One criteria that did not make Zacher's list is popularity. He says a president's popularity during his time in office is not a strong indicator of success.
For instance, President Calvin Coolidge, who was popular during his presidency, is no longer considered a good president because he left the country in economic conditions that led to the Great Depression.
Yet Clinton, although the U.S. House of Representatives brought impeachment charges against him in 1988 for perjury and obstruction of justice — he was acquitted in the U.S. Senate — he was successful during his second term due to the tax and budgetary legislation enacted.
Occasionally, a president's ability to cope with Congress and propose innovative legislation in the second term is interrupted by external events, Zacher says. He cites the Korean War during President Harry S. Truman's second term as an example of an unexpected interference contributing to a president's “troubled second term.”
But Zacher affirms the elements of successful leadership haven't changed overtime.
“You have to accommodate the principles to each president's time in office,” Zacher said. “But (the six criteria) worked then the same way they work now.”
As the possibility of Obama's second term approaches, Zacher says two dominant factors will sway voters, especially independents — the economy and Obama's leadership skills.
“Obama allowed Congress to lead the fight for his (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act),” Zacher said. “That gives the impression that Congress was the dominant branch of government during that essential legislation. I think the issue is whether Obama is being perceived as a strong leader.”