The US presidents who managed to win a second term have usually had serious difficulties during their sixth year in office. By this point, the sheen of reelection has usually worn off, the low-hanging policy fruits have been picked, and the opposition has become emboldened. The only presidential resignation, the only censure of a president by the Senate, and one of two presidential impeachments all occurred during sixth years. Landslide midterm election defeats are common too. But none of this is inevitable — some presidents have gone against the grain and accomplished at least somewhat significant things.
Here's a ranking of just how bad year six has been for every president who's made it there, starting with the worst. I'll note that until 1933, presidential inaugurations took place on March 4, so a president's sixth year would technically begin on that day. However, since most people think of "years" in terms of calendar years, I've stuck to that for simplicity, except for vice presidents who became president unexpectedly midyear. I've also omitted Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson for not serving a full sixth year, but kept Richard Nixon's self-induced shortened sixth year. We'll get to him in a minute, but first...
17) James Madison — 1814
In President Madison's sixth year, he had to flee the White House before it and much of Washington, DC, were occupied and burned by an invading British military force. This was swiftly followed by a default on the national debt — the US government was effectively bankrupt because the war Madison and his party started had gone so poorly. These were the capstones to a year of awful humiliations for Madison. "The prestige of the federal government had sunk so low and the prospects for victory in the war become so doubtful that few politicians cared to identify themselves with the administration," historian Daniel Walker Howe wrote in his excellent book What Hath God Wrought?
It's true that late December did bring the successful negotiation in Ghent and approval in Britain of a treaty to end the war. But, Howe writes, in the treaty "the British conceded nothing on either of the issues for which the United States had gone to war: restrictions on American trade and impressment of American seamen." And though the public was thrilled that the war ended, the treaty's negotiation was little comfort to them or Madison during his sixth year, since news of it wouldn't reach the US until his seventh.
16) Richard Nixon — 1974 (until his August 9 resignation)
"One year of Watergate is enough," President Nixon said in his January 1974 State of the Union address. That was wishful thinking. The scandal, which had been raging for months, simply grew bigger and bigger, overshadowing all other matters until Nixon chose to end his sixth year prematurely. In March, seven former aides to Nixon were indicted, including his former chief of staff and attorney general. In April, edited transcripts of some of Nixon's secretly tape-recorded conversations were released to the public and caused a media sensation. In July, the Supreme Court ruled against Nixon's claims that he could withhold more tapes from the special prosecutor. So in early August, as impeachment loomed, Nixon became the only president in American history to resign.
Some might argue that the president who was hounded from office during his sixth year should be listed below James Madison. But while the criminality and abuses exposed in Watergate were surely awful, does their awfulness really match up with the occupation and burning of the capital by a foreign power? The destruction of the United States and its government were never really at risk in 1974. Plus, Nixon got some good personal news before the year was out when his successor, Gerald Ford, gave him a "full, free, and absolute pardon" for anything illegal he might have done during his presidency.
15) Ulysses S. Grant — 1874
Grant's sixth year brought continued economic turmoil and a massive electoral repudiation for his Republican Party. "The sixty-five months following the Panic of 1873 remains the longest period of uninterrupted economic contraction in American history," Eric Foner writes in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. Joblessness and labor disputes were widespread.
It was a bad year for Reconstruction, too. Armed conflicts in Southern states like the Brooks-Baxter War of Arkansas and the Battle of Liberty Place uprising in Louisiana helped the administration lose its already waning appetite for interventionist policies in the South. And a major new civil rights bill giving black people equal treatment in public accommodations was shelved for political concerns. (The outgoing Republican House would eventually pass it in the early 1875 lame-duck session, but even this wouldn't last — the Supreme Court struck it down several years later.) The Democrats' landslide that year was massive — the GOP went from a 110-seat House majority to a 60-seat deficit — and made clear that the Democratic Party was still alive and well in the North.
14) Grover Cleveland — 1894
Like Grant's, Cleveland's sixth year (nonconsecutive in his case) was marked by continuing economic turmoil from a financial crisis that had begun a year earlier. There were the May Day riots of unemployed workers in Cleveland, Ohio, the Pullman strike of railroad workers, and the march on Washington of "Coxey's Army" of the unemployed. Cleveland broke the Pullman strike but accomplished little else; his Democratic Party lost 107 seats in the House of Representatives that year, and the continuing economic troubles would help lead to an era of clear Republican ascendance.
13) Bill Clinton — 1998
Clinton started his sixth year with high approval ratings, and hopes of reaching an entitlement reform deal with Republicans and winning some foreign policy achievements. But the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in January, and the controversy consumed the year. White House aides and the president testified before a grand jury, a report documenting Clinton's sexual conduct with Lewinsky in detail was released, the "blue dress" entered the lexicon, and Clinton ended up as the second president ever to be impeached. He had successes to point to — the economy remained strong, he projected the first budget surplus in decades, and his party performed well in the midterms. By early 1999, the impeachment saga would end with Clinton acquitted. But 1998 was certainly a year he would rather forget.
12) George W. Bush — 2006
President Bush won confirmation of his second-choice Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in January, and it was basically all downhill for him from there. The big story of the year was the dramatic deterioration of Iraq's security situation and the seeming failure of Bush's policies to stabilize the country. Elites and the public lost confidence in the war, and many Iraqis and Americans lost their lives. In November, Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress in what Bush dubbed "a thumping," and the president fired Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the following day. Other highlights of the year include North Korea testing a nuclear device in October and Dick Cheney shooting a guy in the face back in February.
11) Harry Truman — April 12, 1950–April 11, 1951
Truman's sixth year was dominated by the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Suddenly, after less than five years of peace, Americans were embroiled in a bloody conflict again. Things seemed to go well at first, but the entrance of China into the war that November was unexpected and quickly caused the US to lose much of the territory it had gained. Back at home, McCarthyism was in full swing, and a bill establishing a "Subversive Activities Control Board" was passed over Truman's veto (it would end up gutted by the courts). In the midterm elections, Democrats lost seats but retained their majorities in both chambers.
The final days of Truman's technical sixth year were marked by harsh public criticism from his top general in Korea, Douglas MacArthur, of Truman's desire to fight a limited war rather than expand the conflict to China. Truman decided to fire the very popular MacArthur, and set an important precedent for civilian control of the military. In a speech explaining his decision to the public, Truman said it "would be wrong — tragically wrong — for us to take the initiative in extending the war," adding, "Our aim is to avoid the spread of the conflict."
10) Franklin D. Roosevelt — 1938
Roosevelt and Democrats had won overwhelming victories in his fourth year, but his sixth year saw the end of the New Deal. The final liberal reform measure, signed into law in June, was significant — it established a limited minimum wage set to kick in that fall, the first national minimum wage in US history. But Southern and fiscally conservative Democrats joined with Republicans to block the rest of Roosevelt's program. He responded by launching a high-profile effort to defeat them electorally, and he failed utterly. (Read more in Susan Dunn's book Roosevelt's Purge.) As David Kennedy writes in Freedom From Fear, "The South emerged more anti-New Deal and anti-Roosevelt than ever, and outside the South Republicans had eaten deeply into Democratic strength. ... By the end of the year, liberal reformers were everywhere in retreat."
Abroad, the year included the continued rise of Hitler and Nazism with the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, the Munich Agreement, and the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews. Toward the end of the year, FDR began planning to dramatically expand American airpower — and on this issue, he would be able to ally with many of those Southern Democrats. At the close of 1938, though, he looked quite a lot like a lame duck.
9) Barack Obama — 2014
Through much of 2014, the year felt like a disaster for Obama. No significant legislation made it through Congress. His foreign policy was often muddled or ineffective, and headlines of crises frequently dominated the news. The midterm elections were a historic defeat for the Democratic Party. He got sued by the House of Representatives.
But Obama also pushed through some of his policies via executive action, with his deportation relief program and Environmental Protection Agency rules. Obamacare's performance has improved. Budget deficits are no longer ballooning. And in the matters that Obama has less control over but may determine whether his presidency is viewed as a success — like health care costs, gas prices, and economic growth — the latest data has been encouraging. Then there was the major deal with Cuba — its consequences aren't clear yet, but it looks like a genuinely historic accomplishment. It's surely far too soon to predict which events of this year will stand out decades later — but right now, it appears that Obama had a mixed sixth year rather than a great or awful one.
8) Ronald Reagan — 1986
If not for his final two months, Reagan would have been a contender for having the best year on his list. He successfully won two Supreme Court confirmations — William Rehnquist was approved as chief justice, and Antonin Scalia joined the court. Reagan signed a sweeping tax reform bill into law. He made some progress in arms control negotiations and had a famous summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in October where the two parties came quite close to agreeing on a dramatic reduction in nuclear weapons. And in the midterms, Republicans did lose control of the Senate — but they lost just five seats in the House, which is not bad at all, historically.
But days after the midterms, news of the Iran-Contra scandal — in which Reagan's National Security Council aides arranged the sale of arms to Iran and illegally steered the proceeds to Contra rebels in Nicaragua — broke. The year ended with the resignation and firing of key national security aides, a special investigatory commission, and news that fired NSC aide Oliver North destroyed many apparently incriminating documents. It was the worst scandal of Reagan's administration and darkened his last two years. Since it broke pretty late in 1986, though, Reagan still ends up pretty high on this list.
7) Andrew Jackson — 1834
As Jackson's sixth year began, a controversy over his attempts to kill the Second Bank of the United States continued to rage. Jackson had campaigned against the bank in 1832 and vetoed a bill to recharter it, but at the start of his second term he went further, moving federal deposits out of the bank by executive power. (He had previously fired a Treasury secretary who'd refused to authorize a similar action.)
So in March 1834, the Senate censured Jackson — the only Senate censure of a president in US history. Jackson's actions galvanized his critics and even helped name them. "Whig" was a "traditional term for critics of executive usurpations," Howe writes, and it was officially adopted as the new party's name later that year. The Whigs would be the main opposition to Jacksonian Democrats for two decades. But Jackson had the last laugh during his term — the midterm elections of 1834-'35 resulted in Jackson's supporters winning back control of the Senate (through state legislatures). The charter of the bank Jackson so hated then expired two years later.
6) Dwight D. Eisenhower — 1958
Eisenhower's biggest accomplishment of his sixth year may have been simply holding one meeting — with Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, and other civil rights leaders making their first visit to meet a president at the White House. The president also ordered a military intervention in Lebanon that was impressively non-disastrous, and signed the Alaska Statehood Act.
Lowlights of the year include the attack on Vice President Nixon's motorcade as he toured Venezuela (which demonstrated increasing Latin American anger at American Cold War policies), the firing of longtime White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams over a fur coat and rug he accepted from a businessman in trouble with the government, and a rough midterm year in which Republicans lost 13 Senate seats and 48 House seats.
5) Woodrow Wilson — 1918
Wilson's sixth year was grim and bloody for the world and for Americans. Tens of thousands of Americans died in the final year of World War I, and a global flu pandemic broke out that would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and tens of millions overall. At home, Wilson signed the Sedition Act, which forbade criticism of the US government, into law (it would be repealed two years later), as well as a measure easing the deportation of anarchists.
But the US and its allies won the war — which finally ended in November 1918 — and Americans were strongly positioned to play a key role in setting the peace. Wilson left for Paris to do just that in December, dreaming of a new international organization that would reflect American ideals and help end war. His next year would be filled with frustration and failure.
4) James Monroe — 1822
Electorally, things went quite well for Monroe in his sixth year — the Era of Good Feelings was quite good for his Republican Party, as the Federalist opposition continued to wither away. Monroe's party picked up 34 House seats in 1822-'23, a feat no president would ever repeat in a midterm election.
The year wasn't marked by similar policy successes. Denmark Vesey's planned slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina, was nipped in the bud, but the fear it stoked in the state's politics would remain for years. Florida officially became a territory of the United States at the end of March, which depending on your opinion could be either good or bad news — it was certainly bad news for the Seminole Indians who then lived there. Monroe also vetoed a bill to authorize toll collection along the National Road with what Howe calls "a 25,000-word explanatory essay" arguing that it was unconstitutional — but this precedent wouldn't last.
3) Thomas Jefferson — 1806
Jefferson's sixth year was marked by discovery and progress. In September, the Lewis and Clark expedition, which Jefferson commissioned years earlier, successfully returned to St. Louis in September after reaching the West Coast. In March, he signed a bill that authorized construction of the National Road. In December, Jefferson sent a message to Congress calling on them to end the international slave trade, which they would do the following year with a bill making it a crime to import or export slaves from abroad.
The one major difficulty was continuing British impressment of American sailors and interference with US shipping. The US tried to respond to this with the Non-Importation Act of 1806, but the bill's implementation was delayed, it failed to change Britain's behavior, and merchants complained. It was a precursor to the Embargo Act, which banned all US exports and caused a huge political controversy — but that wouldn't happen until Jefferson's seventh year.
2) Teddy Roosevelt — September 14, 1906–September 13, 1907
President Roosevelt got many things he wanted, and had few setbacks, in his sixth full year as president. The midterms went quite well for him, as Republicans kept both houses of Congress. He occupied Cuba to stabilize the country (and advance American interests) after its government collapsed, and visited Panama to oversee the construction of the canal he desperately wanted.
He signed the Tillman Act, which tried to prevent corporations from contributing to national political campaigns (though there was no way to enforce it). And he used executive power — in March 1907, when Congress passed a bill limiting the president's powers to create forest reserves, he created 16 million more acres of reserves just before signing the bill. Plus, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.
1) George Washington — 1794
President Washington's sixth year certainly wasn't an easy one, but it was marked by the successful and peaceful resolution of crises. The Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania was "the most serious domestic crisis the Washington administration had to face," wrote Gordon Wood in Empire of Liberty. But Washington ordered the raising of 15,000 militia troops, a show of force that led the rebels to back down.
Meanwhile, British interference with and seizure of American shipping to the West Indies brought the countries close to war — but Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay as a special envoy to negotiate a deal keeping the peace. The resulting Jay Treaty was controversial domestically but fulfilled its chief aim of avoiding war. A US victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers helped solidify American control over the Northwest Territory, and Congress also passed an anti-slave trade law that year. It was a year with several accomplishments, made more impressive by the fact that the challenges were so great and the country was so young.
Update: Clarified that midterm elections during Monroe and Jackson's terms took place from 1822-23 and 1834-35, not purely in each president's sixth year.