One Term, Joe?
by Ron Faucheux
As both parties set markers for a new administration, one reality has yet to sink in––the possibility that Joe Biden will voluntarily serve only one term as president.
Waves of implications will flow from Biden’s decision on whether he seeks another term. Can he be as effective the first four years if a second term is ruled out? Can he get his program passed and judges confirmed? Can he hold the Democratic coalition together? Will foreign leaders trust the longevity of his policies?
If Biden imposes a one-term limit on himself, it would be the first since 1876. And, if he does, it would have as much to do with age as politics.
Biden will be 82 at the end of his first term. If he seeks re-election, wins and serves a full eight years, he’d leave the White House at 86. Ronald Reagan, the oldest president, left office at 77––younger than Biden as he enters.
It’s not for us to say that anyone in their 80s can or can’t do the job. But an octogenarian––even with Biden’s deep love of politics and public service––may not feel a need to stay in office beyond a single term. Biden’s agenda to bring the country together may not require a second term and would likely do better without the disruption of a re-election fight.
Three presidents made and kept one-term promises––James K. Polk, James Buchanan and Rutherford B. Hayes. Ten more were defeated for second terms, beginning with the nation’s second president, John Adams, extending to the most recent, Donald Trump.
Other presidents haven’t sought re-election when they could have run. Before the two-term limit went into effect in 1951, only one president, Franklin Roosevelt, won third and fourth terms. Since limits have applied, presidents who serve less than two years of a predecessor’s unexpired term can seek two additional terms. For example, Lyndon Johnson was eligible to run again in 1968, but declined.
Before the current president, the three previous ones (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) were all two-termers, bookended by two who lost second term bids (George H.W. Bush and Trump).
If Biden takes himself out of 2024 contention, the question is when does he do it. To avoid the lame duck stigma, Beltway voices will urge him to wait as late as possible. But, timing is not always that simple in politics; countless considerations are at play.
If Democrats do poorly in the 2022 midterm elections, a no-run announcement soon afterward may signal party weakness. On the other hand, if Biden wants Vice President Kamala Harris to succeed him, a late announcement could help clear the path for her nomination. However, if he waits too long, it could make it appear that he’s unfairly stacking the deck in favor of a hand-picked heir.
One option for Biden is to announce soon. He could do it in his Inaugural Address or first speech to a joint session of Congress. At this point, he has four full years ahead of him as president––too much time to be considered much of a lame duck. Taking re-election off the table early would make his entire presidency seem less partisan, which is something he’s already made clear he wants to do.
Biden should use a no-run announcement for governing advantage by pairing it with a strong declaration about putting the nation’s agenda above the distractions of electoral politics. That would bolster his public standing and likely strengthen his hand dealing with Congress.
“One good term deserves another” is an old re-election slogan. But for Joe Biden, one good term may be his best bet.