The 2020 presidential election is over–finally–and Former Vice President Joe Biden is the winner! Not my preferred choice, given many of the other candidates who ran in the primaries*, but much, much, much better than Donald Trump.
So–obviously–it's time to start thinking about 2024.
There are lots of things in the near future that will become important. The twin runoff elections in Georgia that will decide control of the Senate. (Don't hold your breath, though: these are longshots for the Democrats to win.) And of course, when Biden is sworn in, it will be important to see what sort of legislative change he can accomplish; or whether a much-needed second stimulus will be passed. But I don't feel like I have anything super unique to say about that.
So right now, I'd like to fast-forward to the election of 2024–specifically, whether Joe Biden will run again. There's some evidence that Biden is planning to step down after his first term (he'll be 82 years old at the end)–but politicians love power, so I was initially skeptical that such rumors would end up being true.
So right now, I'd like to fast-backward to the election of 1792. In it, George Washington initially considered stepping down. He had James Madison draft a Farewell Address that he would deliver, explaining his decision. But he felt the young country needed him, so he stayed on for another four more years until 1796, when he sent out the Farewell Address for real.** In doing so, he set a two-term precedent that was followed by every president up until Ulysses S. Grant. (Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to win a third term in 1940, but Grant was the first to try–in 1880, four years after his term ended. His party nominated someone else.)
But what I'm more interested in today is the reelection precedent. In fact, every eligible president has run for reelection at least once, with just three exceptions. Who were they, and what happened? That is what I'll explore in this post.
I like spreadsheets, okay?
So let's look at the first column. We can ignore the 5 presidents who sadly died during their first terms, as they obviously had no chance to run for reelection. 31 out of the remaining 39 presidents*** were nominated for reelection–20 winners and 11 losers. An additional four ran, but weren't nominated. Three of those, Millard Fillmore in 1852, Andrew Johnson in 1864, and Chester A. Arthur in 1884, were elected as vice presidents, but became president upon death of the previous president. The other, Franklin Pierce in 1856, was just very unpopular. I'll talk a bit more about Arthur, because he's probably the best parallel for Biden:
Arthur was infected with Bright's disease, and he knew that it would be unlikely he'd survive a second term. Strictly speaking, Arthur's name was entered as a candidate, but he never seriously hoped to win, so perhaps it's more instructive to think of him as someone who didn't run at all. That said, it wasn't all health reasons–he was fairly unpopular, even in his own party. If his approval was sky-high, I suspect he would have ran again regardless of his health, which makes me skeptical this is truly a parallel.
The one president I've listed as "Lost as Third-Party" was John Tyler in 1844, and his situation is pretty weird. He was elected as Vice President under the Whig Party, but the top of the ticket was William Henry Harrison. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, not wearing a coat at his inauguration was probably not why Harrison died in just a month–the White House water supply was contaminated.) In any case, he did die, and the Constitution was vague on what would happen next. Tyler asserted that he was President, not just Acting President, which many Whigs disagreed with (though ultimately it would become the way of things). He also sided with Democrats, the opposition party, on many policy issues. But the Democrats didn't trust him. So when he wanted to run for reelection, he started his own political party, the Democratic-Republicans. He dropped out, though, after Democratic nominee James K. Polk assured him that his main policy objective, annexing Texas, was also a priority of his. (It ended up happening.) I wasn't 100% sure how to categorize Tyler, but he definitely wanted a second term.
The Three Who Truly Didn't Run
And that just leaves three presidents who truly didn't run for reelection. The first was the aforementioned James Polk in 1848. He was the compromise nominee after a bitterly divided convention, and, stating that he never wanted to be president, he promised to serve only a single term. He kept his promise, and ended up dying just months after leaving office.
The second was James Buchanan in 1860. He was 69 at the end of his first term, and a second term would've made him the oldest president until Reagan. But that probably wasn't why he didn't run. During the 1856 Democratic convention, his main opposition was Stephen Douglas. Douglas was just 43, and promised to endorse Buchanan if Buchanan would give him a chance four years later. (Also, Buchanan supported slavery and allowed the Civil War to happen, so it's very unlikely he would have won reelection even if he ran.)
The third was Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. He was another compromise candidate at the nomination, and the critical electoral votes for his victory were disputed. It's not clear exactly why, but this tumultuous election was probably the rationale for Hayes' one-term pledge, which he kept. Ultimately, Hayes was followed by a Republican, James Garfield, who shared his political philosophy before being assassinated just months into his term.
The Common Threads...and How They Don't Apply to Biden
The most obvious common thread: all three of these presidents made explicit one-term pledges. If a president didn't commit to ruling out reelection, they ran for reelection! Politicians love power. It's a fact of politics. (In fact, there are even some cases of Congress members making pledges to limit themselves to a certain number of terms, and then summarily violating those pledges.)
And if we zoom out to include all eight of the presidents I talked about, all eight of these presidents served between 1840 and 1884. In other words, if Biden wasn't nominated for reelection, he would be the first in 136 years (ignoring presidents who died in office). That's a long time.
And there are also many recent examples of presidents running for reelection despite their advanced age or failing health. Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 both ran for reelection to become the oldest president up to that point. John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 covered up serious health issues to become president. Woodrow Wilson in 1920 suffered a stroke as well as the Spanish flu yet still harbored hopes of winning a third term.****
Joe Biden will be 78 on Inauguration Day, which will make him the oldest president ever inaugurated, and there's some evidence that his mental capacity is already eroding. If he did end up serving a second term, he would be 82 at the beginning (and 86 at the end). There are no historical precedents, at least not in the United States, for someone that old. But the evidence we do have suggests that Biden is more likely that not to run for a second term despite his age and diminished mental acuity. Politicians love power.
*For if you don't want to click them all, here are the people whose Wikipedia pages I just linked: Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Jay Inslee, and Kamala Harris. (As an aside, Bernie Sanders isn't on this list for a reason.)
I'd take any of these people over Joe Biden. But the past is in the past, and now all that's left is hope (and a bit of worry) for the future of the world.
**With major edits from Alexander Hamilton, but that's beside the point.
***You may have noticed that the first-column total is 44 while the second and third columns only total 43. That's because Trump is only counted in the first column, as we don't know what he'll do in 2024 or 2028. (Most presidents have just retired after losing, but I wouldn't be totally surprised if Trump was renominated.)
****[MAJOR WEST WING SPOILERS] Obviously fictional examples should be taken with a grain of salt, but Josiah Bartlet, president on the fantastic 1999-2005 TV series The West Wing, ran for reelection despite his multiple sclerosis.