Few presidents have chosen not to run for a second term

Biden in August of 2020 (Wikimedia Commons)

Joe Biden was old — 77 years old — when he won the presidency in 2020. He’ll be 81 in 2024 — almost nine years older than the previous oldest two-term president, Ronald Reagan, was when he started his second term. Whether you’re a Joe Biden supporter or not, there’s no denying that Joe Biden may be too old to run for president in 2024.

Though he seems more spry than most people I know who are in their late 70s, it’s hard to imagine Joe Biden as president when he’s 86 years old in 2028. It’s a mentally and physically demanding job, and let’s face it, he already seems a little frail.

Even before his first year in office is up, rumors are starting to swirl about whether Biden will run again. He’s claimed that he will, assuming he stays healthy, but that’s a big if. Experts like Ed Kilgore speculate that Biden won’t run again, but he has to pretend that he will in for short-term political reasons.

It’s not uncommon for presidents to serve only four years — if he did, Biden would be in the company of presidents like Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. But most of the one-termers tried for a second; given the ambitious nature of the people who run for president, it’s unsurprising that most of them want to hold onto power.

It’s quite unusual for presidents to voluntarily decline to seek a second term. In fact, the last president who would be a direct analogue for Biden stepped down from the presidency over 140 years ago.

The twentieth century one-termers

There are two categories of presidents who stopped after one term — the true one-termers, and those who served a term and a bit more.

First, those who served a bit more than one term. These three men — Calvin Coolidge (R-Massachusetts) , Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri), and Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) — started as vice presidents and then took over the top job after the previous president died. Each served a partial term after the president died, was elected as president in his own right, and then chose not to run for a second full term.

Coolidge’s decision was the strangest of the three. True to his reputation as “Silent Cal,” he didn’t really explain why he chose not to run in 1928. He simply gathered reporters while on vacation in South Dakota in the summer of 1927, passed out little handwritten slips of paper that said, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928,” and made no further comment.

It was a weird moment, and the notes were worded in a confusing way that left Coolidge’s intentions unclear, but he stayed true to his word and declined to run. He watched, somewhat frustrated, as the Republican Party nominated Herbert Hoover (R-California)— a man Coolidge couldn’t stand — to replace him. Hoover won, and had the privilege of presiding over the beginning of the Great Depression.

Harry Truman served almost two full terms as president after Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945. While he was president, Congress had amended the Constitution to prevent presidents from serving more than two terms, but Truman was exempt as he had ascended to the presidency before the Twenty-Second Amendment had gone into effect.

He apparently seriously considered running again in 1952, but, by the standards of the time, he was pretty old: 68, a full decade younger than Biden is right now. The uncertainty around whether he would run hurt Truman — he allowed his name to appear on the New Hampshire primary ballot, he lost badly, and then announced that he would not run again. Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas), who Truman had tried to recruit to the Democratic Party, ended up winning in 1952.

Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run again is perhaps the most famous of the three. He was elected in 1964 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts). Despite presiding over remarkable domestic achievements — during his time in office, Democrats passed landmark civil rights legislation and established Medicare, Head Start, food stamps, and work-study financial aid.

But his time in office was overshadowed by the fateful decision he made to get the United States involved in the Vietnam War. As the war became more of a quagmire, and his own health became worse, Johnson decided to step down. He announced, in March 1968, that he would “not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

Richard M. Nixon (R-California) won the presidency in 1968. Johnson was right about his health, at least — he developed debilitating heart problems soon after leaving office, and died in 1973.

The real one-termers

Though Coolidge, Truman, and Johnson all chose not to run for election a second time, they all spent more than one term in office. To find a president who voluntarily chose to limit himself to four years in office, you have to go all the way back to the nineteenth century.

There was a brief trend of candidates pledging not to run for more than one term in the middle of the century. James K. Polk (D-Tennessee) claimed that he had never wanted to be president after he was drafted for nomination by the Democrats, and he pledged not to run for a second term in 1848.

James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania), who had won the Democratic nomination from Franklin Pierce (D-Hampshire) in 1856 (limiting Pierce to one term), pledged in his inaugural address to step down in 1860. This is probably for the best, as
he is generally regarded as one of the country’s worst presidents; his inconsistent and counterproductive policies helped to bring about the Civil War.

The most recent analogue for Biden, if he chooses to step down, would be Rutherford B. Hayes (R-Ohio), who did so over 140 years ago, in 1876. Hayes’ story has more parallels with our current reality than one might imagine. In some ways, Hayes’ story is the real version of what Donald J. Trump (R-Florida_ and the Republican Party tried to manufacture in 2020.

After a fraud-ridden election in 1876, Hayes was made president by the narrowest of margins (there was actual, widespread fraud in this election, not false allegations of fraud like we have today). Since the popular vote in three states — Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana — was rendered unknowable by the sheer volume of malfeasance by both parties, neither Hayes nor his opponent, Samuel Tilden (D-New York), could claim a majority in the Electoral College.

Hayes had earned fewer Electoral College votes than Tilden (166 to 184; Tilden needed 185 to clinch the presidency). Hayes’ party, the Republicans, managed to get a majority on the committee that would decide the fate of the 20 disputed electoral votes — after a nonpartisan judge resigned from the panel, a Republican was nominated.

He promised to rule without bias, but quickly voted with the other Republicans. In a straight party-line vote, the committee gave Hayes the presidency. In exchange for Democratic acquiescence, the GOP agreed to end reconstruction in the south, dooming black southerners to decades of Jim Crow discrimination.

Hayes was not accepted by much of the country as a legitimate president. He had pledged when running for the office to limit his stay in the White House to four years — the idea was that he intended to pursue aggressive reform and he did not want to have to worry about his popularity.

He did make some reforms, but his presidency was best known for the events that overtook it, most notably the 1877 railroad strike; Hayes summoned federal troops to violently put down the work stoppage. No president has since done what Hayes did — limit his stay in office to four years.

It’s early in Joe Biden’s presidency; he has a lot of time to decide what to do about the 2024 election. But if he decides not to run again, he will be the first president since the invention of the automobile to voluntarily limit himself to four years in the White House.