Should Joe Biden Offer a One-Term Pledge?

fconsI don’t know if you all realized this, but Joe Biden is kinda old. If elected president, he’ll be sworn in at the age of 78. By comparison, our oldest president to hold the office, Ronald Reagan, left the White House after his second term at 77 years of age — younger than a President Biden would be on Day One. It’s the record player in the room; we all hear it playing, but few of his opponents want to talk about its worn out grooves.[1]

Biden’s age is perceived as one of his campaign’s greatest weaknesses. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans want an age limit on presidents, with many finding 70 (twice the Constitutional minimum of 35) as the right number. In truth, of course, that number is only popular in a hypothetical; not only is Biden clearly the Democratic polling front-runner despite his age, but Republicans will want to re-elect Trump despite him turning 74 next June, which would make him the oldest president ever by his eighth year in his office.

Still, we’ve seen mounting criticisms of Biden’s memory and misspeaking, an implicit worry about his elderliness. Doing the math of where his age will be during his presidency yields some harrowing benchmarks. In the month of his first mid-terms, he’ll turn 80. He’ll end his first term at 82. If he wins re-election, he’ll hope to reach the age of 86(!) before shuffling out of the Oval Office, presumably behind one of those two-wheeled walkers.

Those are terrifying numbers for someone working the most important and exhausting political office in the country. It’s a small miracle for the Biden Campaign that it hasn’t already become a major problem among Democratic voters.[2]

With all that in mind, some people wonder if Biden should offer a “one-term pledge.” Though he’s already said no to the idea, some say he should reconsider and promise not to run for re-election. I’ve perceived, however, that most pundits think this would be a bad idea.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Come on, PPFA. Pundits always know what they’re talking about. We should probably just trust them on this one.” Perhaps, dear reader. Perhaps.

But please, just humor me on this one. Maybe — just maybe — they’re wrong?

First, let’s understand the punditry’s position. The one-term critics can usually be categorized into one of two groups.

  1. Pledging one term would be an implicit and constant reminder of Biden’s advanced age. Rather than putting voters at ease that he won’t be managing the government in his mid-80s, it’ll call attention to the fact that he’s already old now. It’s been reported that John McCain, who was was 72 on Election Day 2008, considered the one-term pledge, but he thought it’d undermine his campaign and make him look even older.
  2. Pledging one term would turn President Biden into a lame duck for his entire presidency. A lame duck — the crass political term for someone who cannot or is not running for another term and therefore cannot be effective in the office because no one sees any urgency to work with him — is considered a neutered politician. Biden, the theory goes, would be stripped of his agency and therefore suffer a lost presidency.

Those are reasonable concerns — but exaggerated and I think wrongheaded. The first has no faith in the American people to know he’s an old person just by looking at him and thinking back to how long he’s been in our lives. Rather than draw attention to his age, a one-term pledge would merely acknowledge that some people might be uneasy of someone running for president in their 80s, and he’d be promising to not put us through it.

The lame duck concern is more tangible, and it’s one to which I’d like to return by the end of today’s post. Before I get into how the Biden Campaign would benefit from a one-term pledge and actually not suffer as a lame duck, let’s first look at the ultimate example of a one-term pledge in presidential politics. Though it took place 175 years ago, we can always learn from history.[3]

In 1844, James K. Polk, the Democratic former Governor of Tennessee, ran for president in hopes of reclaiming the executive branch from the Whigs. Polk famously pledged to serve for only one term — and this was over a century before the 22nd Amendment limited presidents to two — because he only had four goals in mind and would use those four years to carry them out.[4] Polk went on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, much in thanks to this clear and abbreviated agenda, and then he indeed honored his pledge.

Before all that success, however, the 1844 Democratic Convention had threatened to splinter the party. It had several strong candidates with considerable disagreements, and the convention had trouble identifying the party’s soul and mapping out a direction for it. In the party’s struggle to find a nominee, along came Polk, who emerged as a compromise candidate who cobbled together the party’s factions to create a majority that had a fighting chance in the general election. As the presidential campaign shifted to the general election, Polk’s one-term pledge helped bring party skeptics along. Walter Boreman, a Polk biographer, explains, “The Democratic Party at that time had lots of factions. . . . So by saying he’d only serve one term, Polk got his entire party to say, ‘Well, let’s support him and position ourselves for four years from now.'”

Fast-forward to 2019, and we again have a splintered Democratic Party with several strong candidates arguing over the soul and direction of the party. This party also wants to re-take the White House from the opposition. Biden’s claim is that he brings enough disparate parts of the country together — most notably older voters and white working class moderates from the industrial north that voted for Trump in addition to African Americans across the country who were extremely supportive of Biden’s last boss — that he makes the best general election candidate. He has clearly positioned himself as a sort of “gun for hire” here. Of all the reasons to nominate him, the first seems to be to evict Trump from the Oval Office. Biden’s platform only seems to be relevant insofar as it supports that express purpose of his candidacy — victory.

If you look at general election polls, you can see the case. Here’s the last national survey provided by seven major pollsters who asked about the top five Democratic candidates in a match-up against President Trump. What I’ve listed is their margin lead.


Biden outperforms all his top Democratic rivals — and pretty thoroughly at that. Even acknowledging the meaninglessness of the popular vote, one still sees similar patterns in swing states as well; Michigan, Pennsylvania, WisconsinNorth Carolina, Ohio, and Arizona all show Biden as the strongest opponent against Trump — sometimes as the only one who leads him at all.

He’s already among the most palatable candidates for swing voters, so in a general election where Biden looks to win over the ten percent or so of Republicans wary of the President, it stands to reason that a one-term pledge might earn more of these crossover voters. Many #NeverTrumpers are looking for any acceptable Democrat, and Biden is among a few that resonate. If Biden promises just four years, these #NeverTrump Republicans should be more likely to hold their noses and vote Democratic for once, because then in four years their party can run in an open election against a non-incumbent Democrat with someone who isn’t Donald Trump.

With Polk’s success and Biden’s general election projections in mind, let’s now consider the second big criticism of the one-term pledge — Biden’s lame duck potential. Most of the seven national Trump vs. Biden polls charted above saw Biden hit 54 or 55 points, which no other Democrat even reached once. Fifty-five points! Do you know the last president to win 55% of the vote? Ronald Reagan in 1984. No one’s even cracked 53 in the last 30 years. A president winning such a mandate could be a huge boon to his potential effectiveness.

Of course, general election polls this far out mean little. Things change. A frequent example one hears about changing general election polls was that Hillary Clinton, four years ago, was projected to beat Trump too. Still, it’s worth noting that her September 2015 polls against Trump weren’t dominant like Biden’s. Trump, in fact, led five head-to-head polls against her that month — and this was still well before he started winning primaries and consolidating the Republican Party. Usually in the high 40s, there wasn’t one September poll where Clinton rose above 51%, to say nothing of Biden’s frequent 54s and 55s. For however much it’s worth, Biden is more popular now than candidate Clinton ever was.

And here I’ll start to push back against anti-one-termers’ lame duck charge. (That assumes a victory, so we’ll assume it, too.) If Biden’s numbers hold up, his majority mandate would obviously help him move an agenda. Still, even if his numbers collapse into something we can probably expect in a general election — that is, Trump and Republicans successfully reduce the Democratic nominee’s popularity to something in the high 40s but he holds on for the win thanks to his advantage in the battlegrounds — a Biden single-term pledge will add urgency to his presidency. Importantly, I don’t just mean urgency for Biden, who will hear the ticking clock for four years, but also for the Republican Party.

To understand what I mean, let’s play it out. Presumably, a Biden one-term pledge, if successful, would have convinced enough progressives that they can co-sign his nomination as a strong general election candidate against Trump if that means they can then have another shot at a progressive nominee in just four years. In fact, I think it’s safe to assume that a Biden nomination would require a more progressive running mate — perhaps Warren, Harris, Stacey Abrams, or Julian Castro Andrew Gillum — and it’s that running mate who would be considered the heir-apparent to his presidency. A Biden nomination could be seen as a short, four-year restoration of normalcy while the Democratic Party figures out what it is. Some argue the purpose of a primary is so a party can figure out what it stands for, but for most of political history nominating conventions were used to determine who the party’s best general election candidate was. The one-term pledge strategy could marry the two approaches: win now, then figure out what the party is while the country isn’t (from the Democratic perspective) getting damaged in the meantime.[5]

Now, considering Biden’s progressive VP is the likeliest next president of the United States, if you’re a moderate Republican Congressperson during the Biden Administration, with whom would you rather negotiate, strike deals, and lay out the country’s priorities — the moderate Joe Biden or the potential lefty on deck? It’s surely Scranton Joe. Therefore, I see the urgency to problem-solve as much a Republican motivation during Biden’s single term as a Biden one.

I also think some more minor, positive narratives could accompany his one-term pledge campaign. In an era where so many people are frustrated with politicians more motivated by re-election than serving the people, we’d have a candidate who, like Polk, is saying, “I just want to get W, X, Y, and Z done for the country, then I’m outta here. I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for you.”

Similarly, a President Biden could exclusively focus on governing for his entire four years. We’ve seen that presidents running for re-election in the modern era, for a sizable chunk of their first term, must split their time and attention between governing and campaigning. It becomes a distraction to their presidency; it’s not only time-consuming and exhausting, but it naturally will shape the decision-making process of our chief executive. We don’t talk enough about how, I don’t know, inappropriate that is? If Biden pledges one term, he could.

Ultimately, a one-term pledge should help his nomination chances, his general election chances, and his chances at an effective presidency. If things continue to trend toward Warren in Iowa, he’ll need some kind of game-changer, and this pledge could be it. I think he should make it, and I think he will.


[1]The closest attempts — by Eric “Pass the Torch” Swalwell and Julian “Are you forgetting ALREADY what you said two minutes ago?” Castro — resulted in nothing good for those candidates, aside from those nicknames. Swalwell soon dropped out of the race, and Castro faced the sharpest criticisms of the third debate.

[2]The reason, I assume, is because his closest challengers, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are also in their 70s. The vocal Sanders supporters in particular find themselves frustratingly muzzled. If their candidate of choice were in their 40s or 50s, you better believe age would be talked about right now.

[3]Although I’ve taught classes that belie that theory.

[4]Those four goals were (1) re-establish the Independent Treasury System that the Whigs abolished; (2) lower tariffs; (3) annex the Oregon Country; and (4) acquire from Mexico California and its harbors. I love that this is the fourth footnote.

[5]Admittedly, I doubt the pledge would have the desired effect on Sanders supporters, since their candidate is clearly in his last hurrah. He’s not running for the nomination again as an 83-year-old — though his supporters would follow him ruthlessly and fanatically to his grave.


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