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.