My Turn, Chris White: Trump, Biden and the second term curse  

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 22, 2023

By Chris White

The 2024 presidential election could end up being a fascinating situation where the incumbent is competing against a former president.

It has been nearly a century since this occurred when Herbert Hoover attempted a comeback and sought to challenge Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election. Hoover’s political baggage was significant, however, and he lost the Republican nomination to Wendell Willkie, who was defeated by FDR in the general election.

The 1940 election is also notable because this is the first and only time any president has won a third term, and Roosevelt would even go on to win a fourth term and was in office for just a few more months before his death in April 1945. Roosevelt served an unprecedented 12 years in office and will have the record for the longest presidency as long as the 22nd amendment is in place, which prohibits any president from being elected more than twice. Congress approved the constitutional amendment in 1947 and it was finally ratified by the required number of states in 1951. No matter how popular any president has been since that time, they have been restricted from running for a third term by the amendment.

Returning to the 2024 contest, if Donald Trump were to win a second term, he would join Grover Cleveland as the only presidents to lose a reelection campaign, and then win a later election. Cleveland lost the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison, but then won the rematch in 1892, which makes him both the 22nd and 24th presidents. Because of this oddity, while Joe Biden is the 46th president he is the 45th man to hold that office. Granted, a lot can change between now and the next election, and there is a strong possibility that neither Biden nor Trump will go through with an entire campaign. On inauguration day in January 2025, Biden would be 82 years old, and Trump would be 78. Besides the age question, both men are underwater in their popularity, meaning that more voters disapprove of them than approve and it is apparent that large segments of Democrats and Republicans would like to see different candidates on the next ballot.

In addition, the experience of most two-term presidents since World War II is instructive and suggests a second term for either Biden or Trump would be underwhelming. If the incumbent president is reelected, we would tend to view that electoral victory as a vote of confidence and a reaffirmation of goals and policies. However, what has tended to happen over the next four years is a reelected president’s popularity plummets during their remaining time in office, a somewhat counterintuitive dynamic called the second term curse. Numerous historians and political scientists have argued against the curse and believe it is more myth than reality, but at a basic level it is hard to come up with a lot of presidents whose second terms were more successful than their first.

Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, and George W. Bush all experienced a massive drop in their approval ratings and their unpopularity at the end helped candidates from the opposition party win the presidency. Bush has the unique distinction of being the most popular president since Roosevelt at one point in his presidency following the September 11 terrorist attacks but left office with the lowest approval rating amid the Great Recession, a clear example of how political fortunes can change. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had decisive electoral college victories in their reelection campaigns and are exceptions to the second term curse. Clinton’s increase in popularity may seem surprising given his affair with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment in 1998. The economic growth and tech boom of the late 1990s obviously helped him during his last years in office and outweighed his personal transgressions for many voters.

Timing also plays a key role. If we think about a two-term presidency as a game with four quarters, the conventional wisdom is that it is near impossible for a president to accomplish anything substantive in the last two years – the dreaded fourth quarter. The president would have used up most of his political capital after six years, meaning major legislative victories on issues like immigration, health care, the environment, or education policy are highly unlikely. And with no possibility for a third term, the candidate field for the next election is wide open and the nation’s attention quickly turns away from the incumbent.

A Biden or Trump victory in 2024 would soon give way to a focus on 2028, especially after the midterm elections, and a second term for either president would probably be a disappointment for his most ardent supporters.

Chris White is an associate professor of political science at Livingstone College.