Dispatches from the Potomac#47 | Less than One Year Out: Turning a Historical Lens on President Biden’s Prospects in the Upcoming U.S. Election

This is a translation of an article originally written in November 2023 for publication in the January 2024 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

General Manager, Washington DC Office, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

The Two-Term Assumption

I took up my current post in Washington, D.C., six years ago—not even three full months into the Trump administration. “Historically, very few presidents have served for only one term; they usually do two,” was something I often heard, right along with comments like, “We’ve got to stop Trump from getting re-elected no matter what,” and, “Normally, you’d get a president for two terms, but we want to keep Trump at one.”

This “two-term assumption” is, historically speaking, not exactly accurate. Of the 45 U.S. presidents preceding Biden (counting Grover Cleveland, who served as the 22nd and 24th president, twice), 14 served two four-year terms—or even more. There have also been three presidents who were reelected but served less than four years in their second term. Even adding these three in, the total number of presidents who have been reelected is only 17. The 27 remaining presidents either did not win reelection or did not seek reelection in the first place. Seeing these numbers—17 vs. 27—it is clear that, in fact, most presidents in U.S. history have only served a single term.

Currently, U.S. presidents are limited to two terms. While the average American may remember that Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was exceptionally elected to four terms, what may not be as commonly known is that the official two-term limit was added to the Constitution only relatively recently, in 1951. Before then, presidents followed the precedent set by the first president, George Washington, who gracefully stepped away from office after serving two terms. Thus, FDR’s “exception” was merely a disinclination to follow precedent rather than any violation of statute. Going back further, there were other presidents who sought a third term: the 18th president, Grant, and the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. However, they both eventually withdrew from their third-term race due to losses in the primaries or party policy.

FDR ran for his third term under the banner of staying out of World War II, then rebranded his cause to winning said war to carry himself through a fourth successful election. Concerns about how such an approach could lead to a president serving unlimited terms led to a movement to codify the previous two-term precedent into law. This resulted in the 1951 passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which established the two-term limit in place today.

Will President Biden Run for Re-election?

History shows that, in addition to presidents who were not reelected or declined to run for a second term, others have declared their candidacy for a second-term election but voluntarily withdrawn before the main event due to poor primary results or other reasons. The 36th President, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), who promoted “Great Society” policies such as eradicating poverty, establishing civil rights, and reforming social welfare, is a prime example of this pattern.

Originally John F. Kennedy (JFK)’s vice president, LBJ became president after the JFK assassination, initially serving around 14 months, then continuing into a standard four-year term following his 1964 election win. He then sought re-election in 1968, when most no doubt assumed that LBJ’s incumbency and presidential accomplishments—such as the legacy of his Great Society policies—would propel him to an overwhelming victory in the primaries. In March 1968, however, the Democratic primary in New Hampshire delivered stunning results: challenger Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy had received 42% of the vote to LBJ’s 49%.

Only four days later, the popular Senator Robert F. Kennedy abandoned any pretense of supporting the incumbent president and entered the primaries. Within two weeks of Kennedy entering the race, LBJ was forced to declare his withdrawal primarily due to two factors: his abysmal performance in the primaries and personal health issues. This combination of poor performance and wobbling confidence in his fitness to serve a second four-year term ultimately led to the end of his reelection campaign.

This LBJ example shares a little similarity with the situation President Biden finds himself in today. His advanced age and declining physical fitness have not gone unnoticed, and his economic policies (“Bidenomics”) have not been well received. At this point in time—less than three years after taking office—his approval rating is the lowest among the last 10 presidents. However, there is no one in the Democratic Party today who can match the momentum of 1968’s Kennedy or McCarthy. Then again, back in early 1968, the U.S. was embroiled in the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. No matter how unpopular Bidenomics may be, it would be misguided to make a direct comparison between the present and the circumstances of decades ago, when anti-war momentum was on the rise. That being the case, the most natural reading of the current situation would be that President Biden will indeed seek reelection unless something else comes into play. Still, having watched U.S. politics up close and personal during my time here, I am no longer surprised when the unexpected happens within short spans of time. What surprises are in store for us this time? I, for one, am on tenterhooks to find out.