Will That Be One Term or Two?

Two thousand, nine-hundred and twenty-two days.

What would you do with that much time?

That's what a president who is re-elected and fully serves both terms in office gets to work with. But as history tells us, more than a few presidents who desired a second term were not returned to office. And not every president seeks re-election.

As Presidents Day -- actually it's Washington's birthday in official terms -- approaches, and with the first whiff of a 2012 campaign already in the air, it seems a good time to take a look at how history has shaken out. What keeps single-term presidents from earning those added 1,461 days in office? And what can the past say about President Obama's future?

Leaving out those eight men who died in office, either naturally or by assassination, and the five presidents who only served out the term of a deceased -- or in one case, resigned -- predecessor and were not reelected in their own right, here's the list of America's twelve single-term presidents (See the White House for quick bios of each):

  • 2d John Adams (Not reelected)
  • 6th John Quincy Adams (Not reelected)
  • 8th Martin Van Buren (Not reelected)
  • 11th James Knox Polk (Pledged to serve a single term and did not seek a second term)
  • 14th Franklin Pierce (Denied nomination)
  • 15th James Buchanan (Did not seek a second term)
  • 19th Rutherford B. Hayes (Pledged to a single term)
  • 23rd Benjamin Harrison (Not reelected)
  • 27th William Howard Taft (Not reelected)
  • 31st Herbert Hoover (Not reelected)
  • 39th Jimmy Carter (Not reelected)
  • 41st George H.W. Bush (Not reelected)

(Grover Cleveland deserves an asterisk here. The 22nd president was elected in 1884 and then defeated in a controversial election, despite winning the popular vote in 1888. But he won again in 1892 and returned to the White House in 1893 as the 24th President.)

Clearly, the first rule about being reelected president is to avoid having the name Adams. We can also set aside James Knox Polk and Rutherford B. Hayes as exceptions; both had pledged to serve only a single term. But apart from the name Adams and the Polk-Hayes oddities, there are a few common themes here:

-- Tough act to follow: Several of the Ppesidents who failed in a bid for a second term were following an extremely popular president. John Adams (after Washington), Martin Van Buren (Andrew Jackson), William Howard Taft (Theodore Roosevelt), and George H.W. Bush (Ronald Reagan). Certainly each of these men had to contend with the expectations -- and perhaps the "fatigue factor" -- of following in the footsteps of four of the most popular presidents in history. Taft's case is also unusual -- he had to run against his popular predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, and finished third, with Woodrow Wilson winning the 1912 election.

-- Not the People's Choice: John Quincy Adams won the 1824 election based on the vote in the House of Representatives. (His opponent, Andrew Jackson, the popular vote winner, called it the "corrupt bargain" and won four years later.) Although Hayes had pledged not run, he also became president in one of the most controversial elections in history in 1876, when a special Commission awarded him some disputed electoral votes, denying the popular vote winner, Samuel Tilden. And Harrison also won a disputed election in 1888 against the aforementioned Cleveland in which election fraud is credited with giving Harrison the electors from Indiana.

-- Ineffective (polite way of saying bad): Pierce and Buchanan, who both were contending with a nation heading almost inexorably towards Civil War, are often ranked among the worst American presidents; neither was renominated by their party. Historians usually rank most of the other one-termers fairly low. Jimmy Carter was given fairly poor marks for his presidency, and especially for his handling of the Iran hostage crisis. But his loss may have more to do with the next theme.
(C-Span surveyed historians for Presidential rankings in 2009 and Carter was ranked #25 of 42, right behind Taft.)

-- It's the economy stupid: Most elections are won and lost on the pocketbook issue. Opponents called Van Buren "Martin Van Ruin" as the nation endured a long economic downturn. Herbert Hoover presided over the Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter, saddled with unemployment, inflation, and high interest rates (remember 12%?), and George Bush were also hurt by severe recessions on their watch.

Among the presidents who took office on the death (or resignation) of the president, there are five who did not win a term of their own and they also receive generally low historical ratings:

  • 10th John Tyler (Denied nomination)
  • 13th Millard Fillmore (Denied nomination)
  • 17th Andrew Johnson (Denied nomination)
  • 21st Chester A. Arthur (Denied nomination)
  • 38th Gerald Ford (Lost bid for second term)

What does any of this augur for Barack Obama?

Obama is probably safe on the first three counts: his predecessor was not ranked among the "greats"; he was popularly elected; and, whether or not you like his policies, his first two years can't be called "ineffective."

But if history has anything to say about Obama's future, the last point -- the economy, stupid -- will again be the determining factor.

During his first term, Ronald Reagan was saddled with a deep recession and a higher unemployment rate (10.8% in November 1982) than we have now. Reagan, like Obama, suffered a sharp setback in the midterm elections of 1982. But over the next two years, the economy began to turn and Reagan went on to a landslide victory to secure his second term in 1984.

The history of presidential reelection fortunes? Maybe It's all about the "benjamins" after all.