The easiest way for President Joe Biden to secure his place in his history is to decline a second term. Only four elected Presidents have ever done that, and nobody has done it since 1880. The woke wing of the party is already nudging him in this direction.
The presidential norm is to seek — and win — a second term. Sixteen presidents have accomplished this feat, from George Washington to Barack Obama. It’s also common for the incumbent to run again and fail. Ten presidents have done that, from John Adams to Donald J. Trump.
Five unelected presidents have chosen not to seek a term of their own after serving out a deceased president’s term (Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur and Ford). Four unelected incumbents limited themselves to one elected term (Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman and Lyndon Johnson — the former two almost certainly would have won, the latter two almost certainly not).
James K. Polk was the first president to take a one-term pledge. This turned out to be a serious decision, as it compelled the ambitious Tennessean to try to fulfill his major campaign promises (the acquisition of Texas, and much of what is today the American Southwest, as well as Oregon) in one term, provoking an unnecessary war with Mexico.
The one-term pledge became a Democratic tradition, followed by Polk’s antebellum successors Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. As recently as 1912, the Democratic platform contained a one-term pledge (though Woodrow Wilson ignored it). Historians will certainly rank Biden with these eminent doughfaces.
In 1880, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes did not seek a second term, perhaps because he won his first term with a minority of the popular vote and a questionable electoral vote count. Ex-president Trump is in a way a successor to fellow New Yorker Samuel J. Tilden, whose supporters insisted that Hayes (“His Fraudulency”) had stolen the 1876 election from him.
Democrat Grover Cleveland sought a second term in 1888 and won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison. Four years later Cleveland won a rematch with Harrison, so Grover is the New Yorker who Trump wants to channel.
As the Democratic base has repeatedly indicated, if Biden wants to stop Trump from being the 45th and 47th President of the United States (as Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th), he should take the one-term pledge.
Paul Moreno is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author of “How the Court Became Supreme: The Origins of American Juristocracy.”
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