After a lifetime of membership in exclusive clubs, President Trump is about to join one against his will.
It is the club of one-term presidents.
There is surely no dishonor in serving a single term in the nation’s highest office. Trump will bring to 23 the number of presidents who had the job for just four years or fewer, so the club includes about half of all those who have taken the oath. Five presidents died while in their first term (two by assassination). Several who stepped in for one of these fallen presidents completed the remainder of that term and left.
But Trump joins a subset within the club — that of presidents who were elected to one term of their own but were denied a second by the voters. For any public figure, that sort of hired-and-fired rejection might be purgatory. For Trump, it may be worse.
Among other things, it lumps him with two recent presidents of whom he has been dismissive: Republican George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) and Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981).
Former President Carter has referred to Trump’s presidency as “illegitimate”; Trump has called Carter “a nice man [who] was a terrible president.” Trump has also referred to Carter as “the forgotten president” who was “trashed” even within his own party.
The first President Bush did not endorse Trump in 2016 and was quoted calling Trump a “blowhard.” Two years later, just after former first lady Barbara Bush had died, Trump at a rally mocked George H.W. Bush’s volunteerism program, called Thousand Points of Light. “Thousand Points of Light, I never quite got that one,” he said.
When Bush himself died a few months later at 94, Trump attended his funeral but did not speak. News accounts of the funeral noted how several who did speak seemed to deliberately contrast the late president with the current one.
Life after the White House
Former presidents tend to be remembered not only for their record in office but also for the manner of their leaving it and the way they conduct themselves thereafter.
And Trump, who has refused to concede his election loss, may find it difficult to match the degree to which both Carter and Bush rebuilt their presidential images after losing.
Carter, still alive at 96, is the longest-living former president in history and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his many reform and peace initiatives abroad. He is also known for his work with Habitat for Humanity. Carter’s approval rating in Gallup polls fell into the 30s before he left office but had risen to the mid-60s by 2009.
For his part, Bush won a measure of redemption when his son George W. Bush won two terms in the White House. The elder Bush remained physical active, going for a parachute jump on his 90th birthday, among other things. He was also prominent as a philanthropist, joining with the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton, to raise money for victims of natural disasters.
Other incumbent presidents defeated
There are only two other incumbents in the 20th century who were defeated when seeking a second full term. One was William Howard Taft, a Republican who finished third in 1912 behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Progressive nominee Theodore Roosevelt (who had previously served as president as a Republican).
The other was Herbert Hoover, who was elected to office in a landslide in 1928, carrying 40 states with 444 Electoral College votes. But then came the Crash of 1929, initiating the Great Depression. In 1932, Hoover carried just six states, with 59 electoral votes, in losing to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Yet both Taft and Hoover would have long lives with considerable public service after leaving the White House. Taft became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1921 and held that position for a decade. And Hoover, though vilified by many, served on various federal commissions after World War II and is now remembered for establishing the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank on the campus of Stanford University, his alma mater.
Gerald Ford also rates a mention in this connection. Although never elected president or vice president, he was appointed to the latter job in 1973, replacing Spiro Agnew, who had resigned. Ford then acceded to the Oval Office upon Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He sought a term of his own two years later but lost narrowly to Carter. He lived another three decades after that, known widely as a golfer and occasional spokesperson who tried to moderate his party’s move to the right. He died in 2006 at age 93.
Eras in presidential history
Trump’s one-term ignominy may seem more intense in part because the club has not added a new member in quite a while. Our last three presidents all won second terms: Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012.
That in itself was unusual. We had not had three presidents in a row who all won two terms in their own right since the early 1800s: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe (1801-1825).
But the U.S. did have an even longer period under just three presidents in the mid-20th century, when Franklin D. Roosevelt won four terms beginning in 1932, Harry S. Truman won one in 1948 and Dwight D. Eisenhower won the next two. The Constitution was amended in 1947 (and the amendment ratified in 1951) to make two terms the limit.
At the opposite extreme, the mid-to-late 19th century saw the presidency change hands far more often. From the time Andrew Jackson left the White House in 1837 to the day Taft left in 1913, only one president (Ulysses S. Grant) served two consecutive terms. In the early part of that era, leading up to the Civil War, there were eight presidents in just 24 years.
Toward the end of the century, Grover Cleveland won a term in 1884, lost the election of 1888 and then recaptured the White House in 1892, making him the 22nd and 24th presidents of the United States.
Stepping in when presidents died
In the 19th century, two vice presidents took the oath following assassinations: Andrew Johnson after Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865 and Chester A. Arthur after James A. Garfield’s assassination in 1881. Neither was considered seriously for the nomination of their respective parties in the following election cycle.
Early in the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt became president when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. He easily won a term of his own in 1904 but then declined to run in 1908. Four years later, he changed his mind, and when he could not wrest the Republican nomination from his successor, Taft, he ran as a Progressive.
Lyndon B. Johnson, who became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, won a full term in his own right in 1964, with 61% of the popular vote. He was a candidate in 1968 but withdrew after some resistance to his renomination arose in the early primaries.
When presidents have died of natural causes, the fate of their successors has been mixed. William Henry Harrison died in 1841 just weeks after his inauguration, making John Tyler president. Tyler ran afoul of the North-South tensions in the dominant party of his day and briefly ran third party in 1844 before bowing out voluntarily.
That cleared a path for James K. Polk of Tennessee to become president. A protégé of Jackson, he completed the annexation of Texas and reached out toward further expansion in California and the Pacific Northwest. Polk has been described as the nation’s most accomplished one-term president. Done in by internal party politics, however, he left office bitter and exhausted and died three months later.
Millard Fillmore rose to the presidency as the vice president of Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican-American War, who died in his second year in office. Fillmore would serve out that term without winning one of his own.
Calvin Coolidge became president when Warren Harding died in 1923. Coolidge easily won a term of his own in 1924, but he chose not to seek another in 1928. Truman took over for Roosevelt just weeks into the fourth term FDR had just won. After nearly four years in office, Truman ran and won in 1948 but decided not to seek another term of his own in 1952.