The Return of the One-Term Presidency

Between 1824–1932, the United States had 26 Presidents. From John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover. Of those, only three, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Woodrow Wilson, served two full terms. Two were re-elected, Lincoln and McKinley, but died before the completion of their second term. Grover Cleveland was the only President to be elected twice, non-consecutively. Six died in office and Wilson had a stroke during the last 18 months of his second term and died shortly after leaving the White House.

Most of these men were “one-term wonders.” William Henry Harrison died 31 days after becoming president, in 1841 and John Tyler became the first Vice President to ascend to the office.(He also has a living grandson) But most have been forgotten to history.

I bring this up because we seem to be embarking, at least, in the short-term, on yet another period of one-term presidencies. Since 1952, there have been just two one-term presidents (Carter and G.H.W. Bush). Kennedy was assassinated and Ford became president when Nixon resigned.

Along comes Donald Trump and he becomes an interesting case. He (likely) will run again and (probably) face one of these five-to-seven candidates: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigeg or either Amy Kolbuchar/Tulsi Gabbard.

Now, as much as I wished the Geritol set (Biden, Warren and Sanders) to sit this one out, they didn’t. Sanders is 77 (b. 1941), Biden 76 (1942) and Warren, who will be 70 on June 22, all have experience, while the two youngest candidates, Buttigeg and Gabbard, are 40 years younger than Sanders. That’s a pretty wide swathe of generations, as illustrated here.

Getty Images

It is way too early to speculate as to what will happen in the next 17 months, but suppose one of the Elder Three win? Biden would be 78 seventeen days after November 3, 2020. Sanders, 79 and Warren, 71 by January 20, 2021. Biden and Sanders, if elected to two terms, would be 86 and 87, respectively, if they make it to the end of their second term. If Trump wins a second term, he would be 78 by 1/20/25.

There are many variables that come into play here. But there are two glaring examples: Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who consistently ranks in the top five Presidencies of all time, was an invalid who had polio from 1921 until his death in 1945. Most Americans never knew that, or, if they did, didn’t talk about it. FDR had a malady of health issues and kept them hidden, until nearly 75 years after he died.

Most of his third term, he was in ill-health. He almost died four times between November, 1943 and April 12, 1945, when he finally did at 63. A year before, he was found to be suffering from high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease causing angina pectoris, and congestive heart failure. But the public, in the before-there-was television, just newsreels, radio and print era of media, knew nothing of the president’s issues and re-elected him to a fourth term in November 1944. Had they know about his health issues, they wouldn’t have, perhaps even going back to when he was first elected in 1932.

Certainly, he wasn’t the only president to keep his health issues hidden. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s, Harding had an irregular heartbeat, Taft was morbidly obese. Eisenhower suffered two heart attacks while in office and Johnson had underlying health issues which may have played a bigger role in his not running for “another term, as your President.”

Reagan, who, until the Jamaica Estates con man, was the oldest elected president at 69, may or may not have been suffering from dementia before surviving an assassination attempt less than 100 days into his first term, but he was in serious decline by the end of his second term, in 1988–89. When it was announced, in 1994, that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, it confirmed what many had suspected.

Tonight, in Orlando, 504 days out, a 73-year-old president will begin his re-election campaign. Next week, the first Democratic debates will be held in Miami. By September, the herd of 23 should be whittled down to 10, if not fewer. If it shakes out the way most expect, Joe Biden against Trump, age and vitality will be an issue.

If Biden (or Sanders or Warren) wins, it may signify a return to the revolving-door presidency, at least for the short-term. Biden has co-opted Harding’s infamous “return to normal,” slogan, but a nearly 80-year-old becoming President wouldn’t be normal. It would be as unprecedented as a B-movie actor or a reality TV star becoming President.

We are still living with the reverberations of Reagan, 40 years on, what will future generations be living with after Trump and maybe Biden? History does rhyme and sometimes repeats itself, but once the mold is broken, it’s hard to put the pieces back together again. Maybe that will be the lesson, in the short-term, that we will have to deal with.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store