The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The unsung virtues of a one-term presidency

A legacy can be secured in four years, but incumbents tend to ignore the value of an early exit

President Joe Biden arrives at Dover Air Force Base, in Dover, Del., on Friday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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In his speech in Philadelphia on Sept. 1 warning of the threat to democracy posed by “MAGA Republicans,” President Biden reminded Americans that he ran for president “because I believed we were in a battle” for the “soul of this nation.” His themes included a strong reprise of the speech he made announcing his candidacy three years ago, when he named this same battle and linked it to President Donald Trump’s “fine-people-on-both-sides” remarks about the 2017 racist march in Charlottesville. “In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” Biden said then.

He clearly sees the soul-of-the-nation battle as defining his presidency — and seems to suggest that it is his to win. Biden is on a mission, his remarks imply, and he is rising to the occasion, meeting the central crisis of this era.

In Philadelphia, he also appeared to signal his intent to seek a second term in order to finish this foundational fight. But the speech served a dual purpose: It left open the door to a reelection bid by setting the themes of a possible future campaign, but it was also a legacy statement should he decide to walk away.

For many decades, the default choice of an incumbent president has been to go for a second term. It’s less clear-cut for Biden, who faces drags on his chances that include the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, the stubborn persistence of inflation, a pandemic that refuses to go away and the actuarial tables: At 79, he is the nation’s oldest chief executive — on Election Day 2024, he will be 81 — and many Democrats are champing at the bit for a new generation of leaders.

Regardless of the obstacles to achieving four more years in the Oval Office, there are good reasons for valuing a single term in its own right. It has unsung virtues that too many incumbents ignore at their — and the country’s — peril.

They ran for a second term — and lost

John Adams, 1797-1801 (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The factors impelling Biden to run again are considerable and alluring. The culture that encases the presidency tells Oval Office occupants that running for reelection is a must. The often heard convention chant, “four more years,” connotes the possibility of lasting achievements and history-shattering greatness. A second term for the modern president is equivalent to the holy grail. Another stint in the White House enables a president to build upon the first-term agenda, keep molding the federal judiciary in one’s ideological image, deepen one’s legacy overseas and push one’s party in fresh directions. Presidents who serve second terms are said to be the shapers of history, individuals who move the country in a fundamentally different direction, and the narcotic of winning four more years in the White House and of having voters ratify one’s first term in a kind of national referendum is virtually irresistible.

Jimmy Carter, the most successful one-term president in history?

The presidents widely regarded as America’s greatest all achieved second terms. George Washington served two terms, setting the bar for probity, before relinquishing power and returning to his estate at Mount Vernon to live out his days. Although Abraham Lincoln was assassinated early in his second term, he was seen as the only one who could preserve the Union, and his second-term inaugural address stands as an ode to the power and grandeur of a second tour in the White House. Franklin Roosevelt needed more than four years to enshrine the New Deal into law and society, save capitalism from ruin and lead the free world in the fight to defeat the fascist powers. Saving democracy, the thinking runs, required multiple terms in office.

It was no accident that in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama cited President Ronald Reagan’s two terms as his model of a chief executive who inalterably changed the nation’s orientation. Presidents see eight years as the bare minimum if they want to meaningfully shift the country’s direction. Adoption of the 22nd Amendment in 1951 — “no person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice” — enshrined into the Constitution the very notion that two terms is the norm and the aspiration. (The amendment didn’t apply to Harry Truman, but he declined to run for reelection in 1952, having already served seven years.) Thus, since the amendment’s adoption, the only president to forgo a reelection bid was the architect of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson — hardly a model his successors have wished to emulate.

In spite of all the forces pushing Biden and his predecessors toward seeking four more White House years, let’s recognize that single terms have merit, and that if Biden were to opt to depart on his own terms, his legacy might be burnished rather than sullied.

On balance, the second half of an eight-year tenure is harder on presidents and the country than the first half. The White House tends to be drained of energy, often becomes engulfed in scandal, and presidents face even fiercer headwinds on Capitol Hill during second terms. George W. Bush announced at a news conference shortly after his triumphant reelection victory in 2004: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and I intend to spend it.” As so many presidents learn, the capital wasn’t nearly as substantial as advertised.

Bush’s second term was upended on myriad fronts. He proposed the privatization of Social Security, but the initiative foundered. His fellow Republicans blocked his effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Iraq remained mired in conflict and bloodshed, and Afghanistan became a stalemate. The administration’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 financial collapse, made for one of the hardest second terms in modern times, and Bush left office with approval ratings hovering around 30 percent. (Losing reelection is also a bitter experience that few people have known. President George W. Bush observed that his father’s 1992 reelection defeat dealt a “sting” that “lingered.”)

Second terms find ways to bleed power and prestige from the Oval Office. The imperial presidency surfaces when presidents feel liberated following their reelection victories, and in the modern era, scandals have sometimes crowded out a president’s second-term agenda. The Watergate scandal originated in the break-in of Democratic headquarters during Nixon’s reelection campaign. The cover-up largely unfolded early in Nixon’s second term. The Iran-contra affair — in which Reagan administration officials hatched a scheme in violation of the law to trade arms for hostages with Iran in order to fund “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua — was another second-term debacle. Reagan’s growing detachment from the details of governing as he aged in his second term helped seed the scandal. The Monica Lewinsky affair was uncovered in Bill Clinton’s second term, triggering his impeachment. All those presidents got things done amid the uproars, but the scandals drained their political capital and buoyed their opponents.

Perhaps the greatest problem with second-term presidents is their tendency to rely more exclusively on executive actions, as partisan opponents in Congress block their priorities. Deploying the presidential “pen” and “phone,” as Obama vowed he would do in his 2014 State of the Union address, is far more tenuous than congressionally approved legislation. Executive orders can be overturned by a successor — also with a stroke of a pen. Courts find it easier to negate a president’s action that hasn’t been congressionally authorized. Even the chaos-prone Trump administration found ways to withdraw the United States from Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and reverse Obama’s historic opening to Cold War foe Cuba, both achievements of Obama’s second term brought about by executive action.

One-term presidents have underappreciated advantages, as well, and often look better in hindsight. A single term is enough for a president to forge a legacy that successors can pick up and build upon. Inspired by the small-government, pro-business ideology, Reagan hung one-termer Calvin Coolidge’s portrait in the White House Cabinet Room (Coolidge assumed the presidency upon Warren Harding’s death and won election in 1924). Two recent biographies have emphasized one-term president Jimmy Carter’s achievements in the realms of energy policy, environmental protections and Middle East accords. The single-term president George H.W. Bush has become something of a model for liberals and some conservatives for his internationalist foreign policy vision, his leadership in managing a peaceful end to the Cold War and the coalition he assembled to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait without plunging the U.S. into a quagmire. Presidents who have served eight years typically notched their most influential, legacy-defining actions in their first terms: Reagan’s major tax cuts; Clinton’s deficit-cutting budgets and the assault weapons ban; George W. Bush’s two wars and domestic security legislation; Obama’s stimulus and sweeping health-care reform all occurred during their first four years in the White House.

By forgoing a second term, future presidents may well give more power to the first branch of government — Congress — and take a step toward curbing some of the president’s imperial powers. Making single terms the norm would address a problem that has long worried critics of the presidency as an institution. Wisconsin Sen. Alexander Wiley, a Republican, warned in 1947 that a multiterm president “always makes for dangers of dictatorship.” Trump’s presidency — particularly his shattering of democratic norms, desire to punish his enemies, use law enforcement and the military to keep himself in power, and crass erasure of the lines between his businesses and his office — revived fears among liberals and some conservatives of despots seizing power. One term can do a lot of damage to democracy, but a second term is far more dangerous. Ours is supposed to be a legislative government, with strictly limited presidential power, and Biden, of all people, with his decades in the Senate, is keenly aware of that.

Biden’s critics got it wrong when they dismissed his 2020 White House run as a futile exercise. He was correct that he was well-positioned to defeat Trump. But if he does decide against a race for re-election, it may well cement his legacy as the person who dealt a blow to Trumpism, defended American democracy and demonstrated to the world that the United States is still a force for freedom, even if it is under duress.