What If Presidents Promised to Serve Only One Term?

So I think watching history unfold is captivating, especially when it comes to presidential politics. Yesterday I recounted the numbers on presidential reelection. Today I want to talk about a fun strategy.

The other night I couldn’t sleep and a political strategy came to mind. We seem to be stuck in an era of gridlock, where politicians are always angling for the next election. They’re focused more on staying in office than getting anything done.

So what if a presidential candidate promised to serve only one consecutive term?

They run for president and promise not to run for a consecutive reelection. Assuming they can stick to their promise, that means they have four years in office with no need to worry about reelection. Suddenly the first term is not about ensuring a second term. Their last year isn’t mostly lost to distraction while they run a presidential campaign and the country at the same time. Let the candidates squabble through the debates while the president remains presidential.

The American people get a more focused president. And the president would have the option of running again for a second, non-consecutive term (without the “loser” stigma). If they were a well-loved president and enjoyed doing the job, they’d have a great shot at reelection down the road.

Turning Down the Job
It rarely happens in U.S. history that a president decides not to run. It’s happened seven times.

Three times a president served a single term and did not run again:

  • James Polk. He campaigned with a promise to only serve one term and historians say it kept him focused on actually accomplishing stuff (of course he died 103 days after leaving office, so his post-presidential career was quite short).
  • Rutherford B. Hayes. He also promised not to run for reelection, though his initial win was clouded in scandal. He worked for social and educational reform in his retirement.
  • James Buchanan. He also declined to seek reelection, though that probably has more to do with his incredible lack of popularity as the country descended into the Civil War. More than a principled stand, he was saving face.

Four times a president served a partial term when their predecessor died, were elected to second terms and could have run for third terms but did not: Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson (though Roosevelt ran for a non-consecutive third term but split the ticket and lost).

It’s rarely been done in U.S. political history. Most presidents either served two terms or served only one and lost their re-election bids (or died while in office). It seems like two non-consecutive terms could be a way to accomplish more and save face politically (a former president could always gauge the popular opinion and have a good idea of their chances before running for their non-consecutive second term; and there would be plenty of reasons to opt out and not run again).

The One Exception
Grover Cleveland is the cagey president who pulled off the two non-consecutive terms. These days losing an election means you don’t get to try again (John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, etc.).

But Cleveland pulled it off. It’d be like Jimmy Carter going up against Ronald Reagan in 1984 and winning, or George H.W. Bush against Bill Clinton in 1996 and winning; it’d take a special set of circumstances to work. And that’s really what Cleveland had. He lost the electoral college in the 1888 election but won the popular vote. When he moved out of the White House his wife told a staff member to take care of things because she’d be back in four years. She was right.

So maybe Al Gore coming back in 2004 to challenge George W. Bush would be a better comparison.

Run On a One-Term Platform
Limiting presidents to a single, six-year term is another idea that’s often discussed. Though I like the idea of presidents having another shot and giving the people a chance to weigh in.

But I think promising to run for a single-term would be powerful in our election-mad times. It immediately puts the single-termer above the fray. They’re here to do business. It’s bold. It’s different. And maybe it’s crazy enough to work.

Now which politician is going to be patient enough to walk away and wait four years before trying again? Which politician is going to be bold enough to make that kind of promise in the digital age and stick with it? Which politician is going to realize that this plan would effectively lengthen their time in the spotlight?


One thought on “What If Presidents Promised to Serve Only One Term?”

  1. I like the idea of a single six year term for Congress for sure. With two years, they’re already asking for money the day after their elected for the next election.
    I have a feeling someone who said they’d only run for one consecutive term might have trouble getting folks to believe them – but if they could pull that off I’d love it.

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