President Obama begins his seventh year in office Tuesday facing a Congress where both the House and Senate are in the hands of the opposition party. He shares this in common with every other president fortunate enough to even have a seventh year in office since the 1950s.
Dwight Eisenhower in 1959, Ronald Reagan in 1987, Bill Clinton in 1999 and George W. Bush in 2007 all climbed the rostrum for this late-in-the-game challenge looking out at majorities of the other party in both chambers.
Eisenhower began his Year 7 having just suffered a devastating mid-term election (1958) that gave the Democrats 65 seats in the Senate. That was the biggest advantage they’d had since the heyday of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it would power them through the next 22 years in the majority. It also signaled the rise of a new generation of Senate liberals such as Philip Hart of Michigan (the namesake of the third Senate office building on Capitol Hill) who would make their mark in the next two decades.
A generation later, Reagan’s first landslide created a Republican Senate. But Democrats had just recaptured that chamber (in November 1986) before Reagan came to the Capitol to begin his seventh year.
Despite his typically sunny demeanor that January night, Reagan was in for a tough year in 1987. There would be House-Senate investigations of his hostage deal with Iran and the Senate would reject his nominee for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork. But Reagan recovered his momentum with an arms control deal with the Soviet Union.
Clinton in 1999 had already seen his party lose control in both chambers — that had happened in 1994. But Clinton did begin his seventh year in office with a unique if dubious distinction: He was the only president ever to give a State of the Union speech while the Senate was considering impeachment charges against him.
It seems a distant memory now, but the House had impeached Clinton just weeks earlier, and the House “managers” of the charges had made their first arguments to the Senate five days before the State of the Union.
Buoyed by his confidence that the Senate would not convict him on those charges, Clinton made no mention of impeachment in his January 1999 address. (The Senate the following month failed to reach a majority, let alone the two-thirds vote needed to convict, on either of the two charges).
Clinton even managed to find a good distraction from the impeachment proceedings, proposing to use the good news on the budget – the prospect of a surplus – to “save Social Security first.” The slogan caught on and put Republicans on the defensive in later negotiations.
The memory of Clinton, like that of Reagan, benefited from an economy that improved throughout their eight years in office. When they left the White House, their approval numbers were among the best of their terms.
The same could not be said for George W. Bush, for whom the sting of electoral defeat was much fresher in 2007. He had just lost both Senate and House two months before, and the Senate losses in particular were unexpected. Ahead lay a tough two years of struggle in Iraq, although the situation there would improve with the so-called surge of U.S. troops and new strategy.
And while the economy had improved through most of his years, Bush’s tenure ended with a meltdown in the mortgage securities market that caused a Wall Street panic and a major recession.