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That a sitting president, even one approaching 80, would commit to seeking another four-year term seems like a foregone conclusion today.
That’s true despite Democrats’ likely loss of the House and maybe the Senate in the coming midterm elections.
It’s true despite the inflation that has Americans souring on the economy.
It’s true despite the toll that another election cycle will take on his family. Joe Biden’s son Hunter is a frequent target of the President’s political opponents.
Many Democratic voters are frustrated with Biden’s performance, and a surprising number – 64% of Democratic voters in a recent New York Times / Siena College poll – would like to see a different candidate in 2024.
But it’s not exactly like other Democrats are stepping up to challenge him so far.
While it seems almost inconceivable that a president today would bow out after one term, that hasn’t always been the case. I talked to Mark Updegrove, a presidential historian and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, about presidents and reelections.
Our conversation, conducted by email and edited lightly, is below.
Why presidents almost always run again
WHAT MATTERS: Presidents almost always run for a second term. Why?
UPDEGROVE: You don’t run for president unless you’re extraordinarily competitive and have a healthy ego. Getting reelected is generally part of the overall proposition. A second term offers another chance at winning at the highest level.
Moreover, you don’t run for president unless you’re ambitious. Four years is relatively fleeting. A president can make a greater mark on the nation and on history in eight years.
What would make someone like Biden reconsider?
WHAT MATTERS: Biden is coming under some notable pressure from fellow Democrats to consider not running for reelection. Should that be enough to make him consider bowing out?
UPDEGROVE: No. It has to be his decision. Biden won the presidency and has earned the right to determine for himself whether he runs for a second term.
Are there similarities between Biden and LBJ?
WHAT MATTERS: The most recent exception to the run-for-reelection rule is Lyndon B. Johnson. Are there any similarities between what led LBJ to announce he would no longer be a candidate for president in 1968 and what Biden faces now?
UPDEGROVE: Yes. There’s the misconception that LBJ opted not to run again due solely to the growing controversy and divisions over the war in Vietnam. That may have been part of it, but his principal concern was his health.
He had had a nearly fatal heart attack in 1955, and his family had a history of fatal heart disease. He didn’t want to put the country through the kind of crisis we had gone through with the sudden death of FDR in 1945, and Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919, which left him incapacitated.
As he considers running again, Biden should make the same calculation. The average life expectancy of an American male is 79. Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term.
And even if he lived through the entirety of a two-term presidency, would he have the physical and mental stamina to deal with the inherent strains of the office?
Which other presidents bowed out?
WHAT MATTERS: Other examples include Harry Truman, Calvin Coolidge and Teddy Roosevelt. They all, like LBJ, assumed part of the term of a president who died in office and then won in their own right. Would Biden essentially be the first one-term president to simply call it quits if he chose to do so?
UPDEGROVE: No, in the 1800s, James Polk, James Buchanan and Rutherford Hayes declined to run for second terms.
But Biden could justify one term given the extraordinary circumstances under which he took office. He wrested the presidency from Donald Trump as perhaps the only Democrat who could, bringing the country back to greater normalcy. That may be enough. By the same token, Trump may still be a threat.
What would a Biden post-presidency look like?
WHAT MATTERS: With the exception of Trump, who is nearly as old as Biden, most recent presidents were quite young when they left office, have had productive lives post-presidencies and lived into their 90s. What could Biden accomplish post-presidency?
UPDEGROVE: Given his advanced age, he won’t have the runway that our more recent former presidents have had.
As with all living former presidents except Trump, he will likely spend the first few years writing his memoir and setting the plans for his presidential library.
Afterward, he’ll be in his mid-80s, so we won’t likely see the kind of activist post-presidency from him that we’ve seen from (Jimmy) Carter, (Bill) Clinton and (Barack) Obama.
How has age affected previous presidencies?
WHAT MATTERS: CNN’s John Harwood writes smartly that Biden’s age is not his problem. But it is what his political opponents cling to in their attacks on him. Has age ever played such a major role in a presidency?
UPDEGROVE: There was great concern that Ronald Reagan was too old for the presidency when he ran for reelection at age 73 in 1984. He deflected it during a debate with the Democratic presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, by quipping, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
But Reagan lost momentum in his second term, and we now know that he was likely suffering from the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease.