Opinion: A future run for the presidency by Biden is at great risk

Editor’s note: Thomas Balcerski is the Ray Allen Billington Visiting Professor of US History at Occidental College and a long-time member of the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. He is the author of “Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King” (Oxford University Press). He tweets about presidential history @tbalcerski. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


In an interview with “60 Minutes” on Sunday, President Joe Biden said it was “much too early” to decide whether he will run again in 2024, adding uncertainty to an already unsettled political landscape.

While Biden has time to make a decision, he should consider another factor: the weight of history. If Biden chooses not to run again, he would become the first term president since Rutherford B. Hayes did not in 1876.

In fact, only three members of the first term – James K. Polk, James Buchanan and Hayes – announced that they would not seek a second term. More often than not, the decision led to electoral uncertainty and defeat for the party in power.

The question is how the power of authority acts as a stabilizing power. When an incumbent president decides not to seek another term, it can create a political vacuum that the opposition party can take advantage of.

President James K. Polk

This dynamic first developed in 1844, when “dark horse” candidate James K. Polk emerged from the 1844 Democratic National Convention as a relative unknown. In a letter accepting the nomination, Polk promised to serve as “the most effectual means” … to make the free choice of a successor best calculated to carry out their will, and to look after all the interests of our beloved country. ”

As president, Polk proved that a one-term president could be effective. He used his time in office to achieve a number of goals, including what became known as “Manifest Destiny,” an ideology that the United States wanted to spread throughout the continent, and which became the forerunner of the Thousand Mile War with Mexico. territorial gain The fact that he also announced that he would accomplish all of his stated goals upon taking office has marked him as one of the most influential single-term presidents in American history.

But if Polk’s one-term commitment left the door open to other Democratic leaders, it also undermined the party’s future prospects. As a prerequisite to serving in his cabinet, Polk demanded that all cabinet members pledge not to run for president.

With the field narrowed, the Democrats settled on veteran Michigan politician Lewis Cass, whose popular sovereignty support alienated the party’s anti-slavery wing and caused many to defect to the third-party Free Soil Party. In response, the opposition Whig Party seized the moment by invoking the popular war hero General Zachary Taylor. In the end, Taylor and the Whigs won the presidency with a narrow majority.

President James Buchanan

In 1857, Buchanan, also a Democrat, followed Polk’s precedent by pledging “not to seek re-election” in his inaugural address. Age may have played a role in his decision: At 69, he would be the oldest man to ever serve at the end of his term.

But Buchanan’s one-term commitment, rather than unifying the party for a four-year term, created competition with Stephen Douglas, who hoped to secure the nomination in 1860. the administration’s preferred candidate, John C. Breckinridge, and paved the way for the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln.

President Rutherford B. Hayes

After Buchanan, the next president to commit to one term was Hayes. While accepting the Republican nomination in 1876, he expressed his intention to retire after four years. A man of principle, Hayes did this primarily to use the corrupt system of political patronage as a condition for him to run for a second term. .

But if Hayes hoped to fix the broken nomination system through this compromise, the problem only got worse. His successor, James Garfield, was assassinated by a disgruntled office-seeker motivated by rumors of a patronage deal.

Since Hayes, no first-term president has decided not to seek reelection, although some second-term presidents have decided not to seek their party’s nomination – Calvin Coolidge in 1928 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Both men were vice presidents. they served significant periods of their respective president’s first terms (thus allowing them to run for another term).

However, the surprise announcement that Johnson would not seek a full second term caused political chaos. When Johnson announced a partial cessation of bombing and peace in Vietnam, he inadvertently belittled the party’s nominee, Hubert Humphrey, and gave Republican nominee Richard Nixon a free pass to explain how he would achieve an “honorable peace.”

The notable exception, Theodore Roosevelt, vowed not to seek a full second term in 1908, a decision he immediately regretted. Roosevelt challenged William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, running as a third-party progressive candidate and losing to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

What does this history of decisive single terms tell us about Biden’s decision to run again – or maybe not? First, it is a relatively rare feature of the American presidency that an incumbent does not seek a second term. In each of the three cases, the president made the decision not to run either before the election or at the beginning of his term. On the contrary, Biden has stated that he would run again if “fate” allowed.

Second, Biden’s latest comments seem to downplay the very real dangers of becoming a lame-duck president years before his four-year term ends. If he announces that he will not run for re-election too soon, he may weaken his party’s standing in future elections. Rather than a well-intentioned commitment to unify the Polk party, the move appears to capitulate to political pressures along Johnson’s lines.

Finally, to decide whether to step aside, Biden should consider whether, like his predecessor Polk, he has accomplished everything he set out to do at the beginning of his four-year term. Otherwise, he risks going down in history as a one-term president, joining the ranks of Hayes and Buchanan.

In the end, the choice of whether to run or not is up to Biden alone. But if Biden chooses to run for another term, he will follow most first-term presidents who have come before him. It remains to be seen whether that decision will ultimately lead to electoral victory or defeat for his party in 2024.