What’s Wrong With One-Term Presidents?

Leave aside Donald Trump. For swaths of American history presidents being reelected was unusual. Maybe that’s not so bad.

History will say that Donald Trump lost his re-election bid because he was a terrible president. But I don’t think it will say—as many commentators have been saying since Joe Biden was declared the winner on November 7—that Trump’s failure to win re-election in itself constituted evidence that Trump was a terrible president. That botches the causality, trivializes democracy, and misreads American history.

“Presidents are rarely denied when they pursue a second term—it has happened four times in the last 100 years—which means,” concluded Michael D’Antonio on CNN, “Trump cannot escape the label he hates most of all: loser.” I won’t deny the pleasure in flinging that word—lewzah!—at a president who took infantile pleasure in tossing it in every direction. But to heap scorn on a president merely for failing to win re-election is to presume that two terms constitute some sort of entitlement, and that, barring extremely aberrational performance, the public bears some sort of obligation to re-up every Richard Nixon or George W. Bush who comes along. Which can be a problem, as these two examples amply demonstrate.

I find it jarring to see two-term presidencies described as the norm because throughout my childhood I never experienced one. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the last president to serve out two full terms, but I was only 3 when he left office and don’t remember it. The next time a president completed that feat, I was 31. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in his first term. Lyndon Johnson was re-elected in a landslide after succeeding Kennedy but became so unpopular, thanks to the Vietnam War, that he didn’t run a second time. Richard Nixon won a second term but resigned during the second because of crimes committed during the first. Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon, lost to Jimmy Carter, who lost to Ronald Reagan, who finally re-established the tradition of the two-term presidency, though on the evidence (cognitive decline, Iran-contra) he might have done better to quit while he was ahead in 1985. (I’ve never been persuaded Reagan did all that much to end the Cold War.)

When I first started working as a political journalist in 1980 the conventional wisdom wasn’t that presidents who failed to win re-election were losers. It was that American politics had become so fractious that two-term presidencies were becoming an impossibility. In retrospect, that may seem erroneous, because the mid-1970s are now remembered, rightly, as a golden era of bipartisanship in Congress. But the horse-trading and we’re-all-friends-by-cocktail-hour chumminess that we miss so much today fueled, back then, a growing distrust of all politicians, derived on the left from Vietnam and Watergate and on the right from a belief that government was coddling criminals, draft-card-burning college students, drug addicts, and militant Blacks. Democratic officeholders absorbed the blows from their own side, with, for instance, the New Republic eventually endorsing third-party candidate John Anderson for president. Republican politicians, on the other hand, moved right to accommodate their angry fringe, eventually asserting that “government is the problem,” as Reagan said in his 1981 inauguration speech—a message that dovetailed with the growing influence of the business lobby and a “grass roots” movement bankrolled by reactionary billionaires.

A proposed solution much discussed around the time of Carter’s failed re-election bid was the six-year presidency. You couldn’t be taken seriously as a good-government type if you didn’t give it serious consideration. Even before Carter lost, his White House counsel Lloyd Cutler published a widely read piece in the fall 1980 Foreign Affairs about limiting presidencies to a single six-year term. The Great Books evangelist Mortimer Adler supported it (“I think we have some reason to believe that the second term often turns out to be disastrous”). William F. Buckley supported it. It was a terrible, anti-democratic idea, guaranteeing, among other things, that every president would enter office a lame duck. But it seemed to many people the only way to create any continuity in public policy. Here’s Carter chief of staff Jack Watson in an oral history:

I’m not prepared at this moment to say categorically that we should have [a six-year presidency]. But if you were to force me to lay my bet now as to which was wiser, I would have to go with it. It has become intrinsically so difficult for us to reelect somebody, given the nature of social, political, and other forces that are working right now, that the right process now would be to choose a person for a six-year term.

What the six-year votaries didn’t realize was that the crisis of the one-term presidency was already evaporating. The next three decades saw only one president (George H.W. Bush) fail to win re-election amid an alarmingly sluggish recovery from the 1990-1991 recession. His son George W. Bush won re-election despite waging a very unpopular war in Iraq, and by the time Barack Obama came along even a sluggish economic recovery was no longer reason enough to deny an incumbent president re-election. It’s hard to identify precisely which aspects of Trump’s presidency cost him the 2020 election because we don’t have good data from exit polls. It’s tempting to blame Covid, but Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, though it hurt him with suburban women, seems to have helped him with male voters who just want to pretend the crisis is over. The election is starting to look as though it wasn’t as close as it first seemed, but it wasn’t a landslide, and Republicans probably kept the Senate. The only honest assessment at the moment is that Trump’s visibly bad behavior in office alienated enough voters at the margin to cost him a second term.

But let’s get this right. Trump failed to win re-election because he was a bad president. He isn’t a bad president because he failed to get re-elected. If you look at history’s one-term presidents, yes, you’ll find lousy ones, starting with John Adams and ending with Herbert Hoover. But you’ll also find presidents who deserve to be remembered in a more favorable light, like John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft. Moving into the modern era, you have one-and-a-half-termer Lyndon Johnson, the ultimate hard case, who was briefly a great president before he became a terrible one. Poppy Bush and Jimmy Carter were never great presidents, but no sensible person would call them the two worst presidents of the past half-century. (Before Trump, that honor was generally understood to reside with Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.) Ronald Reagan’s dubious reputation as a great president rests in large part on his being the first president since Eisenhower to win re-election, but as we’ve come to take re-election for granted that achievement seems less impressive.

The truth is that the failure of an incumbent to win re-election is not the crippling social problem people that feared in the early 1980s nor the stain on personal honor that we judge it to be in 2020. We elect presidents, not kings. We elect them to a single four-year term, and then we decide whether we want to keep them. There may be any number of reasons not to keep them, of which being a terrible president is only one possibility. Ghastliness is the reason Americans didn’t renew Donald Trump’s lease, but a different president (Hillary Clinton?) might have given us a less cartoonish reason. Our new president, Biden, may decide in four years that he’s too old to run for re-election. If he does, that won’t be a disgrace, and shouldn’t be interpreted as such. It will just be a reason to go with somebody else. Scorn the 45th president if you like, but don’t scorn him for not receiving the second term that ought to be any minimally competent chief executive’s birthright.

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Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. This piece first appeared in Backbencher. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.