In late March, President Joe Biden said he “expects” to run for a second term in 2024. It was pretty much taken as a reelection announcement by the punditocracy at the time, though it reminded me of Ted Kennedy’s 1979 incantation that he “expected” Jimmy Carter to run for renomination and “expected” to support him (right on the first expectation, very wrong on the second). But as Peter Nicholas argues at The Atlantic, Biden’s age (78) is always going to make him subject to speculation that he’ll hang it up between now and 2024. And if that’s what he is privately planning, that could have an effect on how he conducts himself as president.
But it’s worth mentioning that if Biden does decide to become a one-term president, he’ll make history. Only three presidents before him have chosen not to run for reelection after a full single term: James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Rutherford B. Hayes. Polk and Hayes ran for their first terms on a no-second-term pledge, which they kept. Buchanan announced a one-term-only policy in his Inaugural Address. Biden is not under any such self-imposed constraint. If he walks away, it will likely be under his own power.
Among the “accidental presidents” who ascended to the chief magistrate’s post on the death of a predecessor, most tried for a full term and subsequently (if they won) a second term. John Tyler and Andrew Johnson were quickly despised by the party that had placed them on the national ticket, and were also rejected by the opposing party. Millard Fillmore pursued and lost the Whig nomination in 1852. Gerald Ford won his party’s nomination in 1976 but lost the general election. Harry Truman won a full term in 1948, but then lost the New Hampshire primary in 1952 and chose not to pursue a candidacy. Similarly, Lyndon B. Johnson won a full term in 1964, but did poorly in New Hampshire in 1968 and was on the brink of losing Wisconsin when he folded his tent for good. Teddy Roosevelt won a full term in 1904 and didn’t run in 1908 because he had pledged not to do so. But he tried a comeback in 1912 as a third-party Progressive candidate (or technically, a rump party that claimed the mantle of the GOP).
The only president who won a full term without a self-imposed term limit and then declined to run for reelection then or later was Calvin Coolidge. But Coolidge privately had decided the ten years he would have served with a full second term was excessive. So if Biden does not stand for reelection, in a very real sense he will stand alone. And if that’s the case, he would not risk joining John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush — and, God willing, Donald Trump — who all won one term but were then denied another.