The Case for a Single Term

Steve Chapman argues that President Obama might be well advised to call it quits after a single term as president:

If he runs for re-election, Obama may find that the only fate worse than losing is winning. But he might arrange things so it will be Clinton who has the unenviable job of reviving the economy, balancing the budget, getting out of Afghanistan and grappling with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Obama, meanwhile, will be on a Hawaiian beach, wrestling the cap off a Corona.

Not to put too fine a point on it but that’s crazy talk. Being president is an itch that just doesn’t go away.

However, I have a serious question arising from the column cited above. Can anyone think of a president’s second term that was more successful, more distinguished than his first term? I can’t think of one in my lifetime.

I can think of any number of less than distinguished, even disastrous second terms, however.

13 comments… add one
  • FDR? Maybe, Eisenhower although I’m a bit fuzzy on the history there.

  • The National Recovery Administration, the TVA, and the CCC were all started in 1933, essentially part of the famous first 100 days. The WPA and SEC started in 1934 and Social Security and the now-extinct AFDC in 1935.

    Roosevelt’s second term began in 1937. I doubt if 1 in 1,000 American could name a significant accomplishment of that term. I can’t. (Update: I’ve thought of one—Lend-Lease. I can’t consider our entry into the Second World War as an accomplishment).

    Probably the most significant legislation of Eisenhower’s first term (and IMO the producer of the most lasting harm) was the National Aid Highway Defense Act in 1956 at the end of the term. During his second term he was sick for a good deal of the time and IIRC was mocked mercilessly by the press for playing golf. I’d probably put the most significant accomplishments of the second Eisenhower term as the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (which didn’t do much that wasn’t symbolic) and the Eisenhower Doctrine in foreign policy,the policy by which we prop up friendly but unstable governments, frequently without regard to how awful they were.

  • steve Link

    Maybe Madison. Depends upon how you view the War of 1812 I think.


  • hattip Link

    Well this what the Clinton’s plan once she could not get in in ’08.

    However, this country will not elect Hillary. She could not “fix the economy–how comic. How could any Democrat “fix” it?

    Ideologically Clinton is no different than Obama.

    The only way to fix this economy is to get the Democrats and the RINO’s out of power and start repealing their laws.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Andrew Jackson might be the most succesful: paid off the national debt; destroyed the national bank; quashed the nullification crisis; probably the most significant 4 yrs of indian removal; stood down the SCOTUS when it tried to protect the Cherokees; and appointed Justice Taney to head the SCOTUS. It was during this period, through the skills of his new Vice President, Martin Van Buren, that the Democratic Party was organized and the spoils system developed.

  • PD,

    I’m not sure that many of the things on your list were actually good things, but you do have a point

  • Icepick Link

    The interesting question is this: Can a President accomplish much in one term if s/he doesn’t have the threat of being a two term President?

    As for a better second term than first, I give you William McKinley. To paraphrase Pat Paulsen, “You voted for William McKinley in 1900 and what did you get? Teddy Roosevelt.”

  • Icepick Link

    JFK also had a great second term – it’s the stuff of legend.

  • Mike Link

    Icepick makes a great point…

    For birth control.

  • Charles Link

    James K. Polk served one term and accomplished a great deal. He did not seek re-election.

  • Robert Link

    What if the office of US President was limited to a single term, but maybe longer (5 or 6 years)? Then, they’d never be bogged down running for a second term.

  • Icepick Link

    Ah, Mike, no sense of humor nor any sense of irony.

    McKinley’s second term did in fact lead to TR’s Presidency. No doubt neither McKinley, nor his relatives, nor TR, nor the supporters of either wanted it to happen that way, but it did. TR accomplished a lot during his years in office, and it’s no certain thing that he would have become President if McKinley hadn’t been assassinated.

    Look at the record of VPs running for the Presidency after their predecessor steps down. It ain’t pretty. Of the VPs who have become President, only four have done so by getting elected to office after their president stopped running for office: John Adams, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon and GHW Bush. Nixon, notably, failed on his first attempt, though, and it took very unusual circumstances for him to later win the office. Thomas Jefferson was elected to the Presidency from the Vice Presidency, but he did so running against the man he had been VEEP to. The Constitution was different in those days, though, and Jefferson had been VEEP because he had been runner-up to Adams in the previous election cycle. The 1800 election was just settling an old score. (It also provided the circumstances to fix that particular problem with the Constitution.)

    On the other hand, eight men had ascended to the Presidency from the VP spot when the President they were serving under died – four of those Presidents having been assassinated. The point of this digression is that TR was no shoo-in to get elected President in 1904. So McKinley should at least get some credit for having put TR on the ticket in 1900. THAT makes it a memorable second term for a good reason.

    As for Kennedy – look what has been attributed to his second term, one that never happened. He stopped American involvement in Vietnam. He stopped Jim Crow, established civil rights for all and brought racial tranquility. He ended the scourge of nuclear weapons and brought peace between East & West. (I’m not aware of any claims that he would have healed the North/South divide, but I’m not sure anyone cared about that in even a theoretical sense until the 1970s. Older folks can feel free to enlighten me on that subject. Or perhaps don’t, it’s a boring topic anyway.)

    And it’s really easy to accomplish all these things when (a) you don’t actually have to do it and (b) you have hagiographers making all the decisions in hindsight, after everyone else knows how things turn out. I imagine that if LBJ had known then what we know now he would have probably made some different decisions. JFK never had to do make those decisions because he had the distinct misfortune of being assassinated. But that fact, and the Kennedy family propaganda machine, made him far more legendary than he could have been had he lived. Hellfire, LBJ actually DID move mountains on civil rights, and not only did it not establish racial tranquility (How could it, given previous history?), but JFK often gets the credit for work LBJ did, at least in the popular mind.

    Now if that isn’t the greatest second act in American Presidential history, I’d like to know what is.

  • Icepick Link

    James K. Polk served one term and accomplished a great deal. He did not seek re-election.

    For not seeking re-election after having accomplished his goals, and for stealing most of the good parts of Mexico, Polk is one of my all-time favorites. Stealing parts of Mexico when he did was brilliant foresight – he basically got California before the Gold Rush, and he got Nevada before the discovery of the Comstock Lode. Either would have probably led to war with Mexico anyway, so he got in ahead of the game. You don’t get that kind of foresight every day!

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