The Return of the One-Term Presidency?

Extended runs in office are uncommon in the United States—no matter the individual.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Morton Keller: At its inception, the American presidency was a mix of the European monarchical model, and the new American idea of limited rule, reinforced by George Washington's two-term limit. The Virginia Dynasty presidents—Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe—served the two-term span; their regionally limited Massachusetts competitors—John Adams and John Quincy Adams—managed only one.

The more democratic party political era that began with Andrew Jackson in 1828 established a new pattern of most chief executives serving single terms (or, if they succeeded to a death-created presidency, no subsequent election). It took special qualities and special circumstances to win reelection: Jackson himself; Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant in the Civil War-Reconstruction era; Grover Cleveland as a Gilded Age reformer (though his were electoral victories separated by a Republican presidential term); the anodyne William McKinley; the Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

From Jackson (1828-1832) until the coming of FDR in 1932, only six presidents were elected to two terms—and 18 elected to one (or, in the cases of John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur none).*

To what degree did FDR's four elections change the pattern? Since then, two-term presidencies have been more frequent: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama. As before, those who came into office as vice president when the incumbent died (or, in Nixon's case, resigned)—Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson—did not pursue the reelection for which they were legally qualified.* And as before, a less than stellar record, or a vote-scattering third party candidacy—Jimmy Carter, the elder Bush—meant that the incumbent fell by the wayside.

And the most recent two-termers—George W. Bush and Obama—won less than smashing triumphs. Obama, indeed, was the first two-term president in modern times to win his second term by a considerably smaller margin than his first one.

So I think it may be said that in its long history the presidency has generally been hostile territory for extended presidencies—with the exception of FDR. But his four elections went so against the American grain that the 22nd Amendment embedded Washington's two-term limit in the Constitution.

What may we look for in the Age of Trump? Given his low poll standings, his increasingly shaky position in his own party, and his inability so far to expand his appeal beyond his core, Trump's second-term prospects (both for nomination and reelection) are less than bright. Of course, we're only six months into his first term, but it is difficult to see much light at the end of the Trumpian tunnel.

Given the past record and this future prospect, the need for fresh faces and a fresh approach to governance in 2020 looms ever larger. Trump may have activated a portion of the electorate that Hillary Clinton (who in her way was almost as deplorable a candidate) missed. And yet, Democrats are so far not making very effective noises about reaching out to these voters, much as the Republicans fell short of its efforts to engage Hispanic voters after 2008.

Who might those new faces, and what might those new approaches, be? The Democrats might be well advised to skip over their current leaders—Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden—and not-so-young aspirants like Elizabeth Warren. As of now, none of these set many pulses racing. It might be best for the Democrats to see who emerges in the wake of the 2018 election.

The Republicans are better stocked with potentials less long in the tooth: House Speaker Paul Ryan, Vice President Mike Pence, and Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ben Sasse. True, none of these seem to appeal to the Trumpian core so far. But if the incumbent continues on his erratic and off-putting course, that core might well shrink to a collection of parings.

And what of programmatic appeals? Without getting too deep in the weeds of policy specifics, both Trumpian excess, and the resistance mode adopted by the Democratic leadership and the media-talking heads chorus, might well give way to a more moderate, open-to-negotiation approach. The take-no-prisoners tails of the two parties make the loudest noises. But it is not clear that they have the biggest battalions. It may be that one of the parties will try to find out in 2020and in doing so, hit political pay dirt.

Julian Zelizer: Mickey, you raise the question on many people’s minds—whether we are looking at a one-term president. Certainly, as you suggest, if we were placing a bet about his long-term prospects the odds would not be in his favor: Low approval ratings, an ongoing investigation, chaos in the White House, and united government without major legislation to show for it spells trouble. It is too early to have any solid sense of where this is all going, but we can take seriously the speculation that there won’t be two-terms of Trump.

You point out that this is not a total surprise, nor is it necessarily just about our current president. For much of American history, one-term presidents were common. FDR shook things up with his four terms and since 1945 there have been a series of two-term presidents. But even then, you remind us, several presidents have not made it that long (either because of resignation, withdrawal, or defeat). Presidents George W. Bush and Obama won “less than smashing triumphs.” The distrust of centralized authority is woven into the founding fabric of this country. We were rebelling against kings when this Republic was created and have not stopped ever since.

From my perspective, this structural analysis of the nation’s discomfort with two-term presidents is too easy on Donald Trump. If the president does stay in office for another four years, in this case, I think it’s safe to say that the political failure is more about him than about the institution. This is not like any other presidency that we have seen and the destructive side of commander in chief is doing more than anything else to subvert his future. His recent public bromides against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his most loyal foot soldier and a favorite of the “base” that the president so cherishes, is a reminder of why things are going wrong.

The next question that you raise is what should the parties do?

From my perspective, the challenge for Democrats is less about moving to the left or moving to the center, than it is about being more vocal and coherent about the party’s economic world view and being more aggressive in championing reforms to make politics work better. Democrats don’t suffer from being too far to the left, they suffer from being too embarrassed about their own party platform. There is relatively unanimity within the party about a number of key issues, such as raising the minimum wage, the need for well-funded infrastructure programs, providing job training and better child care, supporting educational opportunities and more. The pieces are all there. The problem has been that Democratic candidates often hesitate to put these ideas front and center, always fearing that they will be somehow smeared as too far to the left even though the public supports many of these positions. While Republicans embrace their core agenda with relish, Democrats run away from it.

The widespread public rejection of the draconian Medicaid cuts that Republicans have been pushing on Capitol Hill should be a reminder to the party that there is something to the government programs they stand for. In a fascinating piece in The New York Times, Lee Drutman found that the divisions about economic policy are not that deep within the party. The real tension between the Clinton and Sanders “factions” centers on how much they distrust institutions. The Sanders wing doesn’t think much of the political process. A winning Democratic candidate thus needs to combine a robust economic platform with a vision for government reform. The two can be a powerful combination. We should also remember that Clinton won a huge percentage of the popular vote, so the notion that the party can’t attract voters is not clear to me.

On the Republican side, coming back from a one-term presidency wouldn’t be so easy. Republicans will own the Trump presidency and a skillful Democrat will take advantage of this. Many of the possible candidates you mention, Paul Ryan and Ben Sasse, for instance, are far to the right. A look at the kinds of policies that they propose could make it difficult for them to really win a broad coalition. While Trump didn’t seem to know the details of any of the health-care bills, Ryan, for instance, has been the architect of an agenda that makes steep cuts in programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Republicans also need to understand that the forces which produced a victory for Donald Trump are deep rooted. Trump is a culmination of many of the changes that have been taking place within the party over the past decade, not merely an anomaly. Unless moderate Republicans wake up to this fact, the party won’t move in a different direction. For all the talk about a working-class rebellion against the Democrats in states like Wisconsin, much more important to his victory was a conservative media universe (a chattering class, as you might call it) that has fostered the kind of public discourse Trump thrives on, as well as intense partisan loyalty which lead Republican voters to push for more extreme candidates and a notable shift in the party’s ideological world view on issues like immigration and climate change. Trump took many of his ideas right out of the playbook that was written by Tea Party Republicans on Capitol Hill. All of these forces will still make it difficult for the Jeb Bush’s of the world to succeed. The next Republican candidate might not be Trump, but it could easily be a cleaned-up version of him and I am not sure this is a successful recipe for the GOP in a world that is becoming more ethnically diverse, more educated, and more socially liberal than it has been in a long time.

Obviously, time will tell. I guess for now we should just see if he even makes it for the entire term.

Keller: Julian, I do want to take issue with a couple of your statements. One is that the Democrats are more divided on issues than the Republicans; I just don't see that. It is true that traditionally the Democrats were more factional (Comedian Will Rogers in the 1920s said, “I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat.”) But it is one of the topsy-turvy aspects of current as compared to past party politics that the once monolithic Republicans seem unable to come up with a unified front that appears to have become second nature to the congressional Democrats. (A not unrelated development is the reversal of the parties in their appeal to the better-off, more educated segments of the voting population.)

My second reservation has to do with your comment that a “conservative media universe” defends Trump. My sense is that much of that conservative universe, like The Wall Street Journal and a number of members of the conservative “chattering class,” are quite verbal in their criticism of Trump. Do you really think that there is more division among Democrats over the merits of Elizabeth Warren?

I think it is important not to see the Fox-CNN polarity as the defining voices in our political world.

Zelizer: I think that there is nothing quite like the Fox News-Breitbart News network. There are some voices in the conservative media who are now critical of the president, but it took a long time. Generally, Fox News has simply echoed the message of the administration and served as much more of a promotional platform for conservatism than a source of journalism. This has been essential to Trump's success given the power that these networks and websites have with Republican voters. It is simply not comparable with other “mainstream news networks” that regularly include conservative voices—including Trump surrogates—and have been highly critical of Democrats, including Hillary Clinton.

The major area of criticism for the administration has been the Russia investigation, which comes as much from the media as it does from intelligence agencies, a Republican Congress, and many non-partisan voices. Much of the false or misleading information that Trump tweets about seems to come directly from shows like Fox and Friends. So I think what we have seen in the conservative media world is fundamentally different—and this is part of what the party must reckon with if they are serious about wanting to change course.

* This article originally stated that Zachary Taylor had not been elected to a term as president and omitted Chester Arthur from the list of those who did not seek election. We regret the error.

** This article originally stated that Gerald Ford did not seek election. We regret the error.