President Joe Biden announced this week that he will seek a second term. For some, the power of the presidency is irresistible. Almost no one walks away voluntarily from seeking a second term. Lyndon Johnson was the last man who did in 1968, but only after Vietnam and domestic unrest combined to nearly destroy his presidency. And he was swept into office in one of the greatest landslides in history just four years earlier.
Many presidents seek a second term to complete what they consider the unfinished business of the first term; in fact, the current incumbent used almost this exact language in announcing his bid for re-election. Only one president, James K. Polk, felt that he had completed everything he set out to accomplish when he stepped down willingly in 1849 after one term. His four years encompassed the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory and the violent controversy over the westward expansion of slavery. The stress of it all contributed to Polk’s death at age 53, just three months after his term ended.
Historically, second terms are almost always disasters. From Washington to Barack Obama, almost every president who has served beyond four years came to grief on the rocky shoals of a second term. Political scandals, wars, assassinations, economic blunders, natural disasters and foreign affairs (and sometimes domestic ones too, a la Bill Clinton) can quickly diminish popularity and political power, limiting a president’s leadership and ability to govern effectively.
Second-term woes go all the way back to our nation’s first president. George Washington agreed to seek a second term only after being persuaded to do so by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Both men then promptly resigned and left Washington to preside over an increasingly divided country polarized by Jefferson’s Republicans and Hamilton’s Federalists.
Washington’s second term was bedeviled by diplomatic troubles with Great Britain — most notably the controversial Jay Treaty — and Revolutionary France. The day Washington left office he saw this vitriol directed at him in a Republican paper: “Would to God you had retired to private life four years ago. If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by you.”
Thomas Jefferson’s first term was one of the most successful in American history — the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country and hastened the Federalist party into extinction — and his popularity propelled him into a second term. But it was a disaster, again thanks to the diplomatic tangle of European affairs. Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, which basically stopped American shipping abroad, nearly ruined the American economy and was enormously unpopular. Jefferson practically fled the White House in 1809.
Most other presidents who served two terms fared no better. The British army chased James Madison out of Washington before burning the city during the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson was censured by the Senate in his second term during the Bank War, the one and only time that has happened.
Lincoln was assassinated in his second term (as was William McKinley), but had he lived his reputation might have foundered on the shoals of Reconstruction, just as Andrew Johnson’s did.
U.S. Grant was a war hero but the scandals of his second term marked his presidency as one of the worst in history.
World War I and the fight over the League of Nations nearly killed Woodrow Wilson in his second term. FDR’s ill-advised court-packing scheme during his second term nearly derailed his presidency and had World War II not been looming on the horizon, his political fortunes would have dropped considerably. Civil rights unrest, Sputnik, the Cold War and Castro’s rise in Cuba all managed to douse Dwight Eisenhower’s popularity in the last years of his second term.
During the last 50 years, second terms have all been fraught with peril: the afore-mentioned LBJ (technically not a second term, but close, after finishing out JFK’s term); Nixon and Watergate; Reagan and the Iran-Contra affair; Clinton’s impeachment; while the Iraq war, the fumbled response to Katrina, and the economic meltdown eroded George W. Bush’s popularity to record-setting lows. And while Obama’s second term was not marked by outright scandal, it is not difficult to see Donald Trump’s 2016 election as a stinging rebuke to his administration.
Perhaps the Confederates got this part right: they limited their president to one six-year term, period. No worries about re-election, and the Congress knows it will have to deal with the same president for the next six years.
So why seek a second term at all? There is something about the power of the presidency, the pinnacle of political power, that is hard to give up voluntarily. Only time will tell if the current occupant succeeds where others have not. But history is not on his side.
As Thomas Jefferson said about the presidency from personal experience: “No man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it.”
Stan Deaton, Ph.D., is senior historian and the Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Distinguished Historian at the Georgia Historical Society.