Two-Term vs. One-Term Presidents

I’m hardly even an armchair political spectator, but there is something about presidents, political power and history that’s fascinating. Presidential election years tend to kill my productivity because I want to hear the latest news and get the latest insights on what could happen (even when nothing is happening).

Watching history unfold is captivating.

So I’ve got some random thoughts on presidents and who gets reelected. But first, let’s look at the numbers on presidential reelection.

There’s a tendency to think of one-term presidents as failures. (Somehow being elected President of the United States once isn’t good enough.)

Two terms is the standard, exemplified by George Washington and only ever broken by Franklin Roosevelt on the brink of World War II, which brought on the  22nd Amendment and the two-term limit (though Ulysses S. Grant tried for a non-consecutive third term and was nearly nominated).

But the numbers look a little different:

  • 16 presidents were elected to two terms (or more, thanks Franklin).
  • 9 presidents were elected to one term and lost their reelection bids (these would be the guys we think of as failures).
  • 7 presidents were elected to one term and did not seek immediate reelection (3 were simple single-termers who didn’t run again; 4 had succeeded to the job and served a partial term, were then elected to another term, but didn’t run for a third term. Until Theodore Roosevelt tried for a third, non-consecutive term, but lost.)
  • 5 presidents succeeded to the presidency and never won an election.
  • 5 died before getting a chance to run for a second term, so it’s hard to know if they would have made two-term presidents
  • Only 1 president escaped the failure club by losing reelection but then coming back to win four years later and end up serving two non-consecutive terms. (Grover Cleveland forever complicated presidential math because we count him twice; Barack Obama is the 44th president, but the 43rd person to have the job.)

I don’t know what those numbers really tell you, other than the fact that lots of presidents have only served one term. 14 of them served a term and lost reelection and 7 more opted not to run again (maybe because they’d lose?).

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