There have been nearly a dozen one-term presidents who ran for second terms but were denied by voters, but only three one-term presidents since World War II. The most recent one-term president who lost his re-election bid was George H.W. Bush, a Republican who lost to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.
Is four years enough time for new presidents to prove themselves to be Commanders in Chief worthy of being elected to a second term? Considering the complexity of the congressional legislative process, it can be hard for a president to enact real, visible changes or programs in only four years. As a result, it is easy for challengers, like Clinton, in defeating incumbent George H. W. Bush, to ask Americans, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
Who are the other one-term presidents in the history of the United States? Who are the other modern one-term presidents? Why did voters turn their backs on them? Here's a look at America's one term presidents—those who ran for, but lost, re-election—through history.
Democrat Jimmy Carter was the 39th president of the United States, serving from 1977 to 1981. He lost a campaign for re-election in 1980 to Republican Ronald Reagan, who went on to serve two full terms.
Carter's White House biography blames several factors for his defeat, not the least of which was the hostage-taking of U. S. embassy staff in Iran, which dominated the news during the last 14 months of Carter's administration. "The consequences of Iran's holding Americans captive, together with continuing inflation at home, contributed to Carter's defeat in 1980. Even then, he continued the difficult negotiations over the hostages."
Iran released the 52 Americans the same day Carter left office.
Republican Gerald R. Ford was the 38th president of the United States, serving from 1974 to 1977. He lost a campaign for re-election in 1976 to Democrat Jimmy Carter, who went on to serve one term.
"Ford was confronted with almost insuperable tasks," his White House biography states. "There were the challenges of mastering inflation, reviving a depressed economy, solving chronic energy shortages, and trying to ensure world peace." In the end, he could not overcome those challenges.
In reality, Gerald Ford never even wanted to be president. When President Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, Ford was appointed vice president by Congress. When President Nixon later resigned rather than face impeachment for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Ford—who had never run for the office—ended up serving as president for the remainder of Nixon’s term. “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers,” Ford found himself having to ask the American people.
Republican Herbert Hoover was the 31st president of the United States, serving from 1929 to 1933. He lost a campaign for re-election in 1932 to Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who went on to serve three full terms.
The stock market crashed within months of Hoover's first election in 1928, and the United States plunged into The Great Depression. Hoover became the scapegoat four years later.
"At the same time he reiterated his view that while people must not suffer from hunger and cold, caring for them must be primarily a local and voluntary responsibility," his biography reads. "His opponents in Congress, who he felt were sabotaging his program for their own political gain, unfairly painted him as a callous and cruel President."
William Howard Taft
Republican William Howard Taft was the 27th president of the United States, serving from 1909 to 1913. He lost a campaign for re-election in 1912 to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who went on to serve two full terms.
"Taft alienated many liberal Republicans who later formed the Progressive Party, by defending the Payne-Aldrich Act which unexpectedly continued high tariff rates," Taft's White House biography reads. "He further antagonized progressives by upholding his secretary of the interior, accused of failing to carry out [former President Theodore] Roosevelt's conservation policies."
When the Republicans nominated Taft for a second term, Roosevelt left the GOP and lead the Progressives, guaranteeing the election of Woodrow Wilson.
Martin Van Buren
Democrat Martin Van Buren served as the eighth president of the United States, serving from 1837 to 1841. He lost a campaign for re-election in 1840 to Whig William Henry Harrison, who died shortly after taking office.
"Van Buren devoted his inaugural address to a discourse upon the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world. The country was prosperous, but less than three months later the panic of 1837 punctured the prosperity," his White House biography reads.
"Declaring that the panic was due to recklessness in business and overexpansion of credit, Van Buren devoted himself to maintaining the solvency of the national Government." Still, he lost re-election.
Federalist John Adams, one of America's Founding Fathers, was the second president of the United States, having served from 1797 to 1801. "In the campaign of 1800 the Republicans were united and effective, the Federalists badly divided," Adams' White House biography reads. Adams lost his re-election campaign in 1800 to Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson.
Don’t feel too sorry for one-term presidents. They get the same nice presidential retirement package as two-term presidents including a yearly pension, a staffed office, and several other allowances and benefits.
In 2016, Congress passed a bill that would have cut the pensions and allowances given to former presidents. However, President Barak Obama, soon to be a former president himself, vetoed the bill.
And Perhaps Lyndon Johnson?
Elected to his own first term in 1964, Johnson succeeded in convincing Congress to pass many of his Great Society proposals for sweeping social domestic programs. However, under growing criticism for his handling of the Vietnam War, Johnson stunned the nation with two surprise announcements on March 31, 1968: he would cease all U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and seek a negotiated end to the war, and he would not run for reelection to a second term.
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