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Say it ain’t so, Joe
The second-term trap
I admit it: If I were Joe Biden, I’d run for a second term in 2024. And if I had been Donald Trump in 2020, Barack Obama in 2012, George W. Bush in 2004, Bill Clinton in 1996—you get the idea—I’d have run for a second term then.
But it wouldn’t be a good move for Biden, and it wasn’t a good move for those previous presidents. Second terms are, with rare exceptions, a bad idea for presidents. And even worse for the country.
Consider the macro evidence. Second-term presidents almost always get replaced by a member of the opposite party. This has been true for every such president but one since the 22nd Amendment barred third terms. Eisenhower gave way to Kennedy; Nixon (via Ford) to Carter; Clinton to Bush II, Bush II to Obama, Obama to Trump. The one exception was Reagan, succeeded by Bush I.
What this says is that second-term presidents make their parties sufficiently unpopular that voters reject those parties for the opposite ones. And what this says is that second terms are, almost without exception, unsuccessful or worse. Presidents who can think beyond their own interests to those of their party—whose policy positions they presumably share—should get out of the way before running the party into the ground.
Consider the presidencies one by one. Eisenhower’s first term signaled a bipartisan embrace of the Cold War policy of containment and of such basic New Deal programs as Social Security. It produced the interstate highway system, the most important public infrastructure project in American history. Ike’s second term, by contrast, featured the U-2 fiasco and the entrenchment of the military-industrial complex, which he famously warned against as he left the White House.
Nixon’s first term yielded detente and landmark environmental and public safety legislation; his second term was so disastrous he didn’t make it to the end.
Clinton in his first term reconciled Democrats to the less-intrusive government of the Reagan era; he spent his second term fending off impeachment charges.
Bush II started a pair of wars in his first term; they weren’t nearly over by the end of his second.
Obama broke the race barrier in presidential politics by his first election. And in his first term he got the Affordable Care Act through a sharply divided Congress. In his second term he got nothing to boast of.
Second terms are almost designed to fail. First-term presidents bring to the White House new energy, new ideas, new personnel. In their first terms they apply that new energy to putting those new ideas into policy by means of that new personnel. Under the best of circumstances they succeed, setting themselves up to disappoint when they try for an encore in their second terms, to which they bring stale or recycled ideas, diminished energy, and second- or third-team personnel.
Should their first terms prove less successful, presidents might still win second terms, given the advantages of incumbency in terms of publicity and patronage. But those second terms, begun with fewer positives than the first, will be even less successful.
Second terms are when the cracks of corruption appear. Power corrupts, but it takes time. Most presidents get through their first terms without serious scandal; if they stick around for second terms, their chances of getting caught out rise dramatically. The two great presidential scandals of the modern era—Watergate and Iran-contra—were products of second terms. If Nixon hadn’t run for a second term, there would have been no CREEP (Committee to Re-elect the President) nor its skullduggery. If Reagan hadn’t served a second term, there would have been no Iran-contra, at least not for him.
As undistinguished as second terms have been, presidents have been unable to resist them. The self-deniers in American history are few enough to be noteworthy: Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Johnson. Truman technically could have run in 1952 but knew he was so unpopular he wouldn’t have won the Democratic nomination; he doesn’t really count.
A large part of the reason presidents can’t resist the temptation of a second term is that they have difficulty accepting that they won’t be the center of American politics. People who run for president have egos that require stroking, and no office strokes egos the way the presidency does.
The perks of the office are nothing to sneeze at, either. Obama while president remarked that travel would never again be so comfortable and easy.
Historians—including this one—bear some responsibility for the two-term obsession. We refuse to rate any one-term president as great or near-great. We have our reasons, starting with the public affirmation a reelection victory affords. Unlike parliamentary systems of government, America’s presidential system allows no formal votes of confidence. Reelection is our closest approximation. Presidents who win that vote of confidence have a chance for the top echelon of presidential history. Those who don’t—including those few who don’t try—are automatically relegated to the lower tiers.
Joe Biden, of all presidents, should be sensitive to the second-term trap. If age doesn’t catch up with him in a second term—a statistically greater possibility than for any of his predecessors—the impatience of American voters most probably will. He’s doing better in the polls now than he was six months ago, but he’d be fooling himself to think the uptick will be permanent.
Perhaps he can’t see a successor, one with a reasonable chance to defeat Trump. If so, one reason is that he’s blocking the way for a successor to emerge. Getting past an incumbent president to secure the nomination of that president’s party is an insuperable task. If Biden would step aside, successors would appear soon enough.
One thing the 2020 election demonstrated is that in our hyper-partisan age, it’s easier to run against an incumbent president than it ever has been. Biden beat Trump because Trump as president appalled Democrats who turned out in record numbers to vote against him. Meanwhile Republicans had difficulty demonizing Biden, who had been out of politics for the previous four years and merely vice president for the eight years before that.
The tables will be turned in 2024. Biden will be a soft target for Republicans, while Democrats’ fear and loathing of Trump won’t be as immediate as when he was in office.
Finally, suppose Biden wins in 2024. Yes, we historians will have to take him seriously as a two-term president. But it’s hard to envision that his performance in that second term will be better than in his first. He will make it nearly impossible for any Democrat to win in 2028.
If Biden values what the Democrats stand for, he should bear this in mind. He should keep mum through the elections this November, then say no to a run in 2024.