The intentional one-termer

In the early part of this project, I wondered what would happen if a presidential candidate campaigned on running for one term. What if they said, “Here’s what I will do in four years, and after that, I will step down.”

It seemed a reach. If a person is ambitious enough to do what it takes to get elected, then they would not easily be dissuaded from staying in office at least two terms. Sometimes four.

Then I read James K.  Polk’s bio. He said from the beginning his presidency would last only four years. His goals were:

  • Change the tariff
  • Settle the status of Oregon with England
  • Obtain California
  • Bring Texas into the Union

Ambitious goals even for a 2-termer. Three of the goals would easily double the size of the United States, and economic policy never pleases all of the regional interests.

Polk got a boost from predecessor John Tyler, who signed a bill saying that while he wasn’t admitting Texas into the Union, it was a decision that was the prerogative of the president to do so. Within weeks of taking office, Polk exercised that prerogative, without worrying about Constitutional authorization.

The dispute of the southern boundary of Texas triggered a war with Mexico, with the result of the U.S. taking California.

In the meantime, Polk was able to work out a deal on Oregon’s borders, settling for something less than 54°40′ or fight.

Unfortunately for Polk, he caught cholera during his victory lap, dying within 11 months of leaving office.

The intentional one-term platform worked in the 19th century. Given today’s media cycle, however, I don’t think it would. Once an intentional one-termer was elected, the horse race for the next president would begin.

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2 responses to “The intentional one-termer

  • Jeffrey Hill

    You never know. After all, you were surprised by Polk, right? It may be that the President shouldn’t announce his/her intention until three years in. Wouldn’t that be something? The President could effectively alter the next campaign while quietly grooming somebody for the job.

  • Greg Lahann

    It’s an interesting idea. Polk had the advantage of being preceded by John Tyler. The Whigs hated Tyler for turning away from the Whig platform, and the Democrats didn’t trust him because he’d been a Whig. In that context, many threw their support behind Polk simply because he wasn’t Tyler.

    Truman wrote up his intent not to run in April of 1951. He spent the spring of ’52 talking Adlai Stevenson into running. In the end, Stevenson couldn’t overcome Ike’s popularity (despite not standing up for Gen. George Marshall, whose reputation was under attack by Sen. McCarthy). So, grooming a successor didn’t work too well for Harry.

    It’s hard for me to wrap my head around a president setting goals that were ambitious (because Americans like to dream big), but not so ambitious that it takes more than 4 years to get there. (Even had he lived and served 2 terms, JFK wouldn’t have seen the moon landing until 6 months out of office.)

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