Breaking the fifth-year curse

Breaking the fifth-year curse

The transition between a president’s first and second term has been both under-explored and undervalued

The American democratic system invented and relies on the peaceful transition of power between presidencies, especially those of different parties. Because of the legacy of peaceful transfers of power, the presidential transition process is an important one, and a lot of attention goes into planning for first-term transitions. However, the transition between a president’s first and second term has historically been both under-explored, undervalued, and often presents many challenges. While the president’s fifth year should be a symbolic and substantive fresh start, it is often marred by political infighting, major crises, and failed legislative agendas.

A fifth-year president, no longer encumbered by the worries of reelection, should be well positioned to take decisive action. Presidents running for reelection rely on a campaign strategy that highlights the successes of their first term—promising more of the same. If this strategy proves to be politically nonviable, incumbents will run as the more palatable option to their opponent—suggesting that the other candidate would be worse. Neither of these strategies does a particularly good job of setting the stage for a good transition to a second term. By this time in a president’s tenure, one would think that policy priorities would be well defined, a definitive process for enacting a policy agenda would be in place, and the West Wing would be staffed with seasoned professionals adept at pulling the right levers of the federal government. Surprisingly, that has been less often the reality.

Every two-term presidency has had the same problem, which is the president doesn’t think of it as a transition.

Josh Bolton, chief of staff, President George W. Bush

From FDR to President Obama, the history of the modern presidential second-term transitions does offer a wealth of examples of successful strategies, but also a great number of oversights. Ideally, a president entering their fifth year has an experienced staff, clearly articulated policy priorities, and the momentum to seamlessly transition to a second term. However, as history shows, many times this is not the case. The shift between a first and second term is more effectively viewed through the lens of a transition, rather than simply a continuation. Josh Bolten, President George W. Bush’s chief of staff during his second term, notes that “every two-term presidency has had the same problem, which is the president doesn’t think of it as a transition.”[1]

By examining the personnel, policy priorities, and processes of past administrations, this article looks to the lessons of history for a potential roadmap for effective presidential fifth years. Re-elected presidents have the opportunity to avoid pitfalls that have hurt previous administrations and begin their second terms in a stronger position.

Characteristics of the fifth year


            Historically, presidential administrations have experienced extremely high turnover rates in personnel and the Cabinet early in their second terms. According to a report from the Center for Presidential Transition, from 1981 onward, 43% of key staff has departed within six months of the Election Day when presidents win a second term.[2] The loss of Cabinet secretaries and top-level leadership can weaken the president’s ability to pursue his or her agenda. However, if the transition is handled effectively and with foresight, staff turnover can become an opportunity for the incumbent to breathe new life into the administration. As Obama chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, notes, “newness is a good thing” and presents an opportunity to bring in “new legs.”[3] New hires can help reinvigorate the administration and help the president realign his staff with his policy priorities.

            It should not be a surprise that there is often a significant amount of staff turnover between first and second presidential terms. Burnout in the White House can be high. As one former White House official described, “There [are] times you feel completely overwhelmed, miserable and under siege. The hours can be brutal, and the stakes are high.”[4] Reelection campaigns can be similarly grueling. Between June 1 and November 2, 2012, the Obama campaign made a total of 483 campaign appearances—an average of three stops per day. During a single 38-hour stretch, Obama traveled to eight different states. 

A careful fifth-year transition can help minimize these issues. According to White House veteran David Gergen, “The transition time is one in which it's extremely important to put [the candidate] down for a while to recharge the engines. You come off a grueling campaign and everybody is exhausted. If you don’t allow those people to have some time, especially the candidate, to find himself or herself again, get yourself back together and be ready for what is going to hit in January, you’re just asking for enormous problems.”[5] A second-term transition that recognizes the stress placed on both the president and the remaining staff could help to mitigate personnel turnover and improve second-term performance.

For example, President Truman’s choice to install Dean Acheson following the resignation of George Marshall as Secretary of State would set the tone for Truman’s response to the brewing Cold War and gave the president a strong second during the creation of NATO. Conversely, in his first term, President Reagan comfortably delegated to a powerful troika of his closest advisors, Ed Meese (White House counselor,) James Baker (chief of staff), and Michael Deaver (deputy chief of staff.) Following his reelection, Deaver departed for the private sector and Meese and Baker were placed in top-level cabinet positions. The impact of disbanding the powerful trio on which the president had come to rely would handicap Reagan in his second term, and the lack of guidance and protection afforded by this “big three” is evidenced in the Iran-Contra scandal.[6]

Administrations can turn empty positions across the federal government into a genuine opportunity to recalibrate. 

The staffing process entering a president’s fifth year should be approached with the same level of dedication as it is during his or her first year. Fifth year presidencies would be wise to acknowledge the different set of challenges that come with the transition to a fifth year. High turnover can lead to a sense that an administration’s priorities are disjointed or staggered. Administrations preparing for a fifth year should anticipate and plan for personnel changes so that policy priorities can continue as uninterrupted as possible. Vacancies at the Cabinet or deputy level that drag into the fifth year can leave an administration facing a similar challenge to the first year. Finding fast replacements for the hundreds of lower-level employees who leave with their boss ensures a smoother transition and means those replacements can learn the inner mechanism of their new positions sooner rather than later.[7] In doing so, administrations can turn empty positions across the federal government into a genuine opportunity to recalibrate and give themselves the best chance to govern effectively.

Policy and priorities

Fifth year presidents have had considerable difficulty in passing substantive legislation. Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton, for example, were only able to pass four or fewer bills in their fifth years. Even potentially strong pieces of legislation, such as Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act, are often stripped down by the time they reach the president’s desk. To counter this, some presidents have tried to push bills that can pass by wide margins.[8] Out of the last six two-term presidents, five have seen loses in seats for their party in either or both houses of Congress. This, coupled with the fact that incumbent presidents tend to stick to a few topline issues and spend more time defending their prior four years than looking forward to the next four, speaks to their issues passing substantive legislation in their fifth year.

            Following an electoral victory, reelected presidents must decide whether to pursue a continuity strategy or take the administration in a new direction. Both Eisenhower and Truman attempted to ride prior successes and adhered to the idea of continuity. However, this can lead to a slow start and delay of pressing policy priorities. Following his surprise election in 1948, Truman rolled out his “Fair Deal” agenda, a wide array of progressive policies intended to build on his predecessor’s “New Deal,” in his State of the Union address of 1949. Truman’s legislative hopes met fierce resistance from conservative  and Southern Democrats as well as Republicans. Truman’s topline legislation, including national health insurance and the repeal of the Taft-Hawley Act all failed in Congress along with a slew of other proposals. Truman was able to pass a minimum wage increase, the expansion of Social Security and a housing bill, but these wins were far outnumbered by his legislative failures.[9] Surprised by his re-election, Truman had failed to adequately prepare an appropriate legislative agenda for his second term[10] and ended up proposing a laundry list of initiatives that didn’t take the new political landscape into account. Further, drafting his agenda during a working vacation in Key West following a particularly brutal election gave the president a harder time gauging the political climate.

            The fifth year has proven to be a particularly challenging year for presidents and their policy priorities. More often than not, they face an increasingly hostile Congress and no longer have the same hold over the public’s attention that they might have held in their first years in office. Since Truman, fifth-year presidents have had to deal with at least one chamber of Congress controlled by the opposition party, with the exception of George W. Bush. Despite reclaiming the presidency, the president’s party has typically suffered in his fifth year. Losses in the House and Senate compared to the first year range from the fifty-six seats Republicans won during the Obama administration to the Democrats’ more modest nine seat gain during Reagan’s administration. This trend continues into the midterm elections as the president’s party usually suffers greater losses in the House and Senate. This is fundamentally different from a president’s first year, in which the president and his party typically enjoy unified government. This emerging pattern should be taken into consideration when as policy agendas are formulated going into the fifth year.

Effective transition planning includes identifying policy priorities with a reasonable chance of getting it through the House and Senate. The tendency for fifth year presidents to try and tackle contentious domestic policy problems before their lame-duck session is understandable, but politically risky. Foreign policy presents a reasonable avenue for a fifth term president to exercise executive authority and escape an intractable Congress.

While actions in foreign policy are at times demanded by unfolding crises, presidents in their fifth year often take the initiative on dormant yet potentially explosive issues. Clinton’s decision to soften the U.S. stance towards Iran in 1997 is mirrored by the phone call between Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. The call was the highest level of contact between the two nations in nearly three decades and set the stage for the historic, yet contentious Iran Nuclear Deal.[11] In making the deal, Obama was able to bypass Congressional approval and only had to muster on third of the votes to veto Congress’s resolution of disapproval that would have endangered the agreement. Similarly, Reagan took the Cold War into his own hands during his first meeting with Soviet Premier Gorbachev in Geneva. It was the first meeting between the highest-ranking officials from either state in eight years.


            The process by which a president chooses to structure his or her staff, enact policy, and carry out day-to-day operations is pivotal to a successful fifth year. By their fifth year, presidents have either settled into a trusted process that works or are frustrated by a perceived lack of progress and are looking to make alterations in order to effect change in their final term. The transition process provides a unique opportunity as it pertains to the processes employed by the president. The incumbent is given the chance to employ the hard-won experience of the first term to optimize the ways in which he or she will attempt to enact policy promises.  

            A number of presidents have ultimately become frustrated by the inner working of government by their fifth year and attempt to remove obstacles that hinder their ability to effectively govern. A number of presidents have engaged in Executive Branch reorganization to expedite the process of policy enactment and clear channels of communication. In addition to trying to reorganize the Supreme Court, FDR also attempted to push through a bill that “called for the president to receive six full-time executive assistants, for a single administrator to replace the three-member Civil Service Commission, for the president and his staff to assume more responsibility in budget planning, and for every executive agency to come under the control of one of the cabinet departments.”[12] Although the bill failed in 1937, a similar version would pass two years later and help shape the Executive into a more recognizable form. However, it was President Nixon who took the idea of executive reorganization to its extreme. After Congressional committees failed to report out any of the four bills that would have been the first steps in creating his “super cabinets,” Nixon tried to take matters in his own hands in order to “revitalize and streamline the Federal Government in preparation for America's third century.”[13] Through reorganization, Nixon hoped to achieve administratively what had become impossible legislatively.[14] Nixon believed the bureaucratic system had grown bloated and was filled liberals hostile to his policies. In reorganizing the Executive, Nixon thought he could neutralize career bureaucrats and create a more effective management system. Reagan took similar measures when he used the president’s say over the budget to control regulations. Reagan directed the Office of Management and Budget to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on every new regulation and used high price tags to strike down regulations that went against his personal political doctrine.[15]


Second-term presidents rarely see the fifth-year transition for what it is: a time to take stock of a job that they now know well; fix what’s wrong on the personnel and process side; and focus on a few, select new issues. The political opportunities tend to be smaller in the second term because fifth-year presidents have not had governing majorities, historically. However, a president entering his or her fifth year would be wise to learn the lessons from past administrations. If one is willing to work with the other party, one can move a few big ideas forward in the second term. The transition process between the first and second term has often been overlooked by incumbent administrations following a long election season and the temptation to grow overly confident in the ability to govern. The opportunity to take a comprehensive look at the personnel, priorities, and processes that surround reelection is often ignored at a cost to the president’s ability to pursue his or her agenda effectively.

Staff turnover in the fifth year has often hamstrung efforts to move forward with campaign promises––that at times have been poorly defined­­––as vacant posts make it difficult for policy to work its way through the necessary channels of the federal government. However, careful consideration of the transition process between the first and second terms can turn these obstacles into opportunities for a two-term president to make a lasting impact.

A second term transition gives a president the much-needed opportunity to survey the needs of the American people and recalibrate policy priorities, while also examining which processes give his or her agenda the best chance to succeed. Fifth years are often politically challenging, as a president tends to face a hostile Congress and lacks the political capital they entered office with. Planning for this eventuality ensures that a reelected president is in the best position to deliver for their supporters and the American people as a whole.

Works cited

Center for Presidential Transition. “Effective Transition Planning Can Help Presidents Have a Successful Year One and Year Five.” D.C., Partnership for Public Service. April 2020.
Center for Presidential Transition. “Significant Cabinet-level Turnover after a president’s reelection highlights the need for 2nd-term Planning.” D.C., Partnership for Public Service. 2020.
Cohen, Andrew. "The Disappointment(s) of Alberto Gonzales." The Atlantic. May 25, 2011.
H.R. 93-87 (1973) (enacted).
Farby, Merrill. “Five Things You Learn Working in the White House.” January 12, 2017.
Five-Thirty Eight. "How Popular Is Donald Trump?" July 30, 2020.
Hamby, Alonzo L. "Harry S. Truman." May 30, 2018.
Ignatius, David. "Obama's Second Term: The Foreign Policy Agenda." December 6, 2012.
Joe, Anthony James. "Eisenhower Revisionism: The Tide Comes In." Presidential Studies Quarterly 15, no. 3 (1985): 561-71.
Klein, Christopher. "Why Does Inauguration Day Fall on January 20?" January 12, 2017.
Leuchtenburg, William E. "Franklin D. Roosevelt: Domestic Affairs." July 24, 2018.
Maranto, Robert, Douglas Brattebo, and Tom Lansford, eds. Second Term of George W. Bush: Prospects and Perils. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Maynard, Christopher. "The Troika." In A Companion to Ronald Reagan, edited by Andrew L. Johns, 529-45. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
Mason, Jeff, and Louis Charbonneau. "Obama, Iran's Rouhani Hold Historic Phone Call." September 28, 2013.
Milkis, Sidney M., and Michael Nelson. The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2018. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, 2020.
National Archives. "Executive Orders Disposition Tables."
Nelson, Michael. "Barack Obama." September 15, 2018.
Nelson, Micheal. "Bill Clinton and the Politics of Second Terms." Presidential Studies Quarterly 28, no. 4 (1998): 786-92.
Office of the Secretary of Defense. "Louis A. Johnson."
Polsby, Nelson W. "Presidential Cabinet Making: Lessons for the Political System." Political Science Quarterly 93, no. 1 (1978): 15-25. doi:10.2307/2149047.
H.R. 3080, 113th Cong. (2014) (enacted).
Seyb, Ron. "Nixon's Administrative Presidency Revisited: Aberration or Watershed?Journal of Policy History 4, no. 3 (1992): 249-71. doi:10.1017/s0898030600006370.
Stout, David. "Bush Signs $286.4 Billion Transportation Bill." August 10, 2005.
The Miller Center. "J. Howard McGrath (1949–1952)." February 23, 2017.
The Miller Center. "Oscar L. Chapman (1949–1953)." February 23, 2017.
Waterman, Richard W. "The Administrative Presidency, Unilateral Power, and the Unitary Executive Theory." Presidential Studies Quarterly 39, no. 1 (2009): 5-9. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2008.03654.x.


[1] Center for Presidential Transition,  “Effective Transition Planning Can Help Presidents Have a Successful Year One and Year Five,” 3.
[2] Center for Presidential Transition, “Significant Cabinet-level turnover after a president’s re-election highlights the need for 2nd-term transition planning,” 1.
[3] Center for Presidential Transition, “Effective Transition Planning Can Help Presidents Have a Successful Year One and Year Five,” 4.
[4] Farby, Merrill, “Five Things You Learn Working at the White House."
[5] The White House World: Transitions, Organization, and Office Operations, Eds. Martha Kumar & Terry Sullivan, 89.
[6] Maynard, “The Troika,” 529-545.
[7] Maranto, Brattebo, and Lansford, eds. Second Term of George W. Bush: Prospects and Perils, 79.
[8] H.R. 3080, 113th Cong. (2014) (enacted). H.R. 93-87 (1973) (enacted). Stout. "Bush Signs $286.4 Billion Transportation Bill."
[9] Hamby, Alonzo L. "Harry S. Truman."
[10] Truman assumed the office of the presidency after FDR’s surprising death a few months after his fourth reelection. Truman served for more than three years before his own election in 1948, so although it was his first time being elected, it was firmly his second term. Due to the extended nature of Truman’s first term he is more alike to traditional two term presidents than not.
[11] Mason and Charbonneau. "Obama, Iran's Rouhani Hold Historic Phone Call."
[12] Leuchtenburg. "Franklin D. Roosevelt: Domestic Affairs."
[13] Seyb, Ron. "Nixons Administrative Presidency Revisited: Aberration or Watershed?"
[14] Waterman, Richard W. "The Administrative Presidency, Unilateral Power, and the Unitary Executive Theory." 
[15] Ibid.