City Lit Blog

How Presidencies End

Story added 8th Nov 2019

Sculpture by Gutzon Borglum and Lincoln Borglum, Mount Rushmore, US,


Modern Presidency

It can be argued that the modern post-war Presidency started on 12th April 1945.  On that day, Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a haemorrhagic stroke in Georgia.  The only man to win four presidential elections, FDR had taken the USA through the Great Depression and Second World War. He left the stage as the war was being won in Europe and the world was remaking itself. 

His successor was a man who had been Vice President for 82 days and had never been prepared to take over the most important office on earth.  Harry Truman had been a moderately successful Senator until he emerged as the compromise choice for FDR’s running mate, after the Democrats had forced Roosevelt’s second Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket for being too radical.  

Lessons for 2020?

As we start to frame the 2020 election and the chances for Donald Trump to be re-elected, it is worth looking at how each of the post-war presidencies ended and what we can learn from them.  From Truman through to Obama it is possible to gain some perspective on the coming election by stepping back from the battle that has already commenced.  

Although it might not feel like it, we have lived through a period of almost unprecedented stability in terms of recent presidencies.  Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all completed two full terms, which has only ever happened once before: right at the beginning of US history with Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.  If Donald Trump gets re-elected it will be the first time in history that there have been four two-term presidencies. There is, however, one caveat: both Bush and Trump won their first election despite losing the popular vote. Results only made possible because of the vagaries of the Electoral College.

Roosevelt’s Legacy

This is where FDR left another legacy: the limit on two terms for Presidents.  Until FDR, no one had ever attempted to be president for more than two terms.  George Washington, mindful of not recreating a monarchy, left the presidency after eight years and retired to Mount Vernon and his place as a secular saint in American history.  His example held for over 150 years with those presidents skilful or lucky enough to serve two terms leaving honourably.  FDR ran and won a third landslide in 1940 arguing that the world was in too desperate a state for him to leave the stage.  That paved the way for a fourth victory, in 1944, while the war was still raging. 

The Republicans were incensed, as were a number of Democrats, and when the Republicans took both Houses of Congress in the 1946 mid-terms, they passed the Twenty Second Amendment. It stated “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice…” Making Washington’s unofficial rule - official.  Since then that limit has set the backdrop for elections.  

Five post-war Presidents have won and served two full terms; Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama all achieved this feat.  However, if you look closely the two terms of one party is actually pretty much the norm.: Harry Truman actually had the option of running again for a final term as he was essentially “grandfathered” under the 22nd Amendment but his popularity was so low in 1952, an eyewatering 23% at its lowest, that beating the odds a second time (after his great comeback in 1948) wasn’t looking likely.  He did, however, serve almost eight years.  

Complicated 60’s

There are then two more complicated periods of eight years.  John Kennedy won a closely fought fight in 1960, and would probably have won re-election convincingly had he not been assassinated. Lyndon Johnson completed his term and then won a landslide in his own right in 1964, receiving the largest percentage of the popular vote in history.  Johnson could have run again given that he served less than one year of Kennedy’s term. However, like Truman, his low poll-ratings meant withdrawing was a way of saving face rather than losing an election.  

1968 saw another close election with Richard Nixon making a famous comeback from his 1960 defeat.  His Electoral College landslide in 1972, where he won an unprecedented 49 out of 50 states, should have led to the assumption that he was highly likely to complete two terms successfully.  However, he sowed the seeds of his own destruction during the 1972 campaign with the Watergate break in.  Gerald Ford completed Nixon’s second term and has the dubious accolade of the only president never to have been elected on a winning ticket.  Ford went on to lose in 1976. 

The two exceptions to the eight-year norm were Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush who both lost re-election badly. Both of them made far better and respected former-Presidents than they did Presidents.  

Good news for Trump?

Therefore, in many ways, Donald Trump can gain significant comfort from recent history.  Two terms, or at least periods of eight years for one party, are very much the norm.  

However, there a number of things that should cause him concern.  He is going through the process of impeachment, which, whilst unlikely at this point to remove him from office, could considerably erode his support and provide a major distraction during the run up to the election. Especially amongst the traditionally Republican affluent middle-class voters, he needs the support of.  This will add to his already troubling polling numbers, which have seen approval ratings lingering around the low 40’s for most of his presidency, and rarely breaking 50%. It must also be remembered that his first win, whilst decisive in the Electoral College, was substantially behind in the popular vote.  He got to the presidency through an almost miraculous feat of having exactly the right votes in the right places.  He is also the most polarising president in living memory, which leaves few unaligned voters in the middle.  Finally, the economy, which damaged both Carter and Bush in their re-elections, is looking decidedly shaky. 

Consequently, the Democrats have some reason to be optimistic.  However, if the eight-year norm was to hold, then the person who might have reason for a spring in his step could be Vice President Mike Pence, given doubts about Trump’s ability to stay on track for the whole period!

Mark Malcomson is the Principal of City Lit and teaches the “US Presidents who made the post-war world” course (course code HPC06), a five week course starting on 14 November at 18:00 - 19:30.