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Data suggests Biden or Trump may struggle with Congress in second term

Recent second-term presidents were 30 percent less successful with House

President Joe Biden and Donald Trump would be second-term presidents, no matter who wins in November.
President Joe Biden and Donald Trump would be second-term presidents, no matter who wins in November. (Photos by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call and Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — No matter who wins their expected rematch, President Joe Biden and Donald Trump should not expect much from Congress during a second term as far as legislation goes.

CQ Roll Call data suggests both Biden and Trump would struggle to shepherd bills through both chambers, and especially the House. Despite that history, lawmakers from both parties expressed optimism that no matter which candidate is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2025, Congress would be able to work with him on meaningful legislation.

A presidential election rematch between the 45th and 46th chief executives would likely deliver more than a bitterly contested race — it would ensure a second-term chief executive takes office next January. CQ Roll Call Vote Studies data tracking the support presidents get on legislation showed most recent two-term commanders in chief — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — all were less successful in their second four years than during their first terms.

The last four second-term presidents were, on average, 30 percent less successful on House votes. George W. Bush was 41.4 percent less successful with House members during his second term, followed by Obama at 38.1 percent. Clinton and Reagan came in at 20.6 percent and 20.1 percent less successful, respectively.

When it came to working with senators on legislation, Reagan, Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama were, on average, 14.9 percent less successful in their last four years. Some had more wins than others, with Obama seeing a 9.1 percent decline, while George W. Bush was 10.4 percent less successful. Reagan and Clinton fared worse with the Senate, with the Republican seeing a 20.5 percent success decline and the Democrat a drop of 19.9 percent.

One caveat about the data is Trump had shown himself to be less interested in pushing legislation through Congress. In fact, during the years he had a GOP-run House and Senate, he weighed in on the fewest number of bills since Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first chief executive covered by CQ Roll Call Vote Studies. But Trump did have a few legislative accomplishments, including a tax overhaul he signed into law that he still sometimes boasts about during his campaign events.

Although Democratic and Republican lawmakers acknowledged that second-term presidents have typically become lame ducks when it comes to dealing with Congress, they said the trend cannot continue because of the number of challenges facing the United States.

Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., cited “fundamental issues impacting the country” and pointed to “the border crisis, and the affordability crisis, the crime in major cities across this country, and we have a housing crisis.”

“And then you factor in, obviously, the fact that we are in a very precarious position around the globe. I mean, this is probably the most precarious position since World War II,” he added. “So, you know, it’s the urgency to act. … I think the question is: Do you have leadership capable of doing it?”

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, in office since 2011, contended, albeit for different reasons, that Biden or Trump could be uniquely suited to break the historical trend and work effectively with Congress.

“I think a lot more will get done because whoever is in his second term will be unique in his historical position. And the challenges will only be greater than they are now,” Blumenthal said earlier this month. “For President Trump, he’d be in his second term, but nonconsecutive. And for Joe Biden, he’d be in his second term, having just defeated a Trump who is uniquely disruptive and who has blocked necessary measures on border security and a variety of other important things.”

Trump is attempting to pull off what could be branded “a Grover Cleveland,” a reference to the lone U.S. president to serve nonconsecutive terms. Cleveland was the 22nd chief executive (1885-89) and later the 24th (1893-97).

A similar gap in terms would mean the country’s problems, needs and threats would be somewhat — or, in cases like the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars, drastically — different from when the 45th president reluctantly left office in January 2021. Lawmakers from both parties said that could give Trump a path around the typical second-term legislative sinkhole.

That evoked optimism from South Carolina GOP Rep. Nancy Mace, who said the 119th Congress would have no choice but to get things done — no matter who is sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2025 — because there is “too much work to be done.”

“I mean, just look at the immigration issue alone. And all the work that has to be done to protect our states, their borders, the farming land, the environment, the stuff that’s going on in cities all across the country, the crime,” Mace said earlier this month.

But she did point to one difference voters will decide in November, saying there would be a more energetic choice on the ballot, suggesting vigor would automatically produce legislation that could pass both chambers.

“Just on the economy, there’s just too much at stake to have a president who’s not going to work, which is if it’s Biden, you can be damn sure he’s not going to do anything in his second term — if he even makes it to a second term,” Mace said of the 81-year-old incumbent, without mentioning that Trump is 77. “I’ve never seen anyone have as much energy as Donald Trump. That guy is gonna work hard for America in the second term like he did in the first [term].”

Mace then ticked off several of Trump’s “bipartisan” legislative accomplishments. She did not, however, mention any of Biden’s, including a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law the president pushed through both chambers and signed into law in November 2021. Trump promised such a measure during his term, but one never materialized.

The data on second-term presidents aligned with assessments offered over the years by many presidential scholars and Congress watchers.

For instance, John Fortier and Norman Ornstein wrote for the Brookings Institution that six factors typically trip up presidents in their second four years: hubris, staff burnout, a lack of new ideas, scandals, party in-fighting and a realization that foreign policy wins are more attainable.

“Second terms have not been good to American presidents,” the duo wrote. “Virtually all second-term presidents start with a healthy dose of hubris, believing that their reelection has proven their critics wrong, that their priorities were given a rocket boost, and, especially for modern ones, that they were left with immense freedom because they no longer have to worry about petty concerns such as getting reelected.”

Historically, however, “big ideas” have been the things for first terms.

“If presidents have big ideas, they usually raise them in the first term. Sometimes they succeed,” Fortier and Ornstein added. “If they fail to implement their grandiose notions in the first term, it is rare that conditions will change to make it more likely that they will succeed in the second.”

Some presidents became more popular late in their time in office despite being less successful dealing with Congress. For instance, Clinton’s net approval rating climbed 19.9 percent during his second term and Reagan’s rose by 9.5 percent. Fueled by widespread opposition to the 2003 Iraq conflict, George W. Bush’s net approval figure plummeted by 51.7 percent. Obama’s net approval dipped by much less, 7.2 percent.

Of course, how much legislation might pass during the next president’s term will not depend solely on whether Biden or Trump occupies the Oval Office.

Should Republicans capture both chambers and the White House, Trump would have a unique second chance at working with Congress, while Biden likely would become a lame duck rather quickly. But Trump also could become a lame duck if Democrats take both chambers — or even if they control just one, denying him the votes to move bills that push his agenda.

“Whatever cards are dealt by the voters we have to work with. That’s how our democracy works,” said retiring Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland. “So we’ll see what the political landscape is, not just who’s in the White House but who’s controlling the House and Senate. I have confidence that our system can still work.”

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