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Two-term president? It’s not the historical precedent

If you had to guess, of the 45 men who have been president of the United States, how many of them would you say served two and exactly two full terms, then retired?

Former President Barack Obama speaking from Philadelphia on Wednesday night by video feed during the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention.
2020 Democratic National Convention/Pool via REUTERS
Barack Obama was the latest president to complete two full terms in office.
Joe Biden is the 45th man to serve as president of the United States. We have no idea whether he will seek or win a second term or, if he does win re-election, serve his full second term.

But if you had to guess, of the 45 men (all men) who have held the job, how many of them would you say served two and exactly two full terms, then retired?

(The “exactly two” is necessary to acknowledge one of the most obvious exceptions, namely Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR served three full terms and died during his fourth. Then there’s one who won two terms but resigned during the second to avoid being impeached, namely Richard Nixon. Both of those are singular cases.)

If you had asked me, before I checked the list and did the counting, I would have expected that two full terms, then out, would be the overwhelming majority of the cases. But I would be not just wrong but very wrong.

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Sure, we can easily think of some of the exceptions, including the most recent former president, Donald Trump, who won one presidential election (while losing the popular vote) then lost his bid for re-election. Most of us can probably mention a few others who fit that pattern, like the very recent cases of Jimmy Carter (who lost to Ronald Reagan after one term) and the first Bush (George H.W.) who lost to Bill Clinton after serving one term.

But I would have said that these are the kind of exceptions that, as the saying goes, prove the rule, namely that the most typical case among presidents is two terms and out. But that would be wrong and very wrong. Of the 44 presidents (excluding Biden) only 12 would qualify for the two-terms-and-out rule.

That means the two-term “rule” is wrong, or rather, it’s not a rule. The exceptions (that actually turn out not to be exceptions) include presidents who served more than two terms (FDR), presidents who died in office (WH Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Kennedy), one president who resigned during his second term (Nixon) and more presidents than you might think who didn’t seek a second term or were defeated for a second term (most recently, Trump and Carter).

The two-full-terms-and-out presidents are concentrated in two packs consisting of five of the first seven presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Andrew Jackson) and four of the last six (Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama). The exceptions, among the last eight, include only the first George Bush and Trump.

But in between those two clumps, a span covering 29 presidencies from Martin Van Buren to the first George Bush, there are just four who fit the two-full-terms-and-out pattern. This span stretches from 1840, when William Henry Harrison defeated Van Buren, who was seeking a second term. During that long 29 -president stretch, only three presidents — Woodrow Wilson (who spent his last year in office substantially incapacitated by a stroke) and two war hero presidents (Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower) — managed to serve two and exactly two terms.