Washington: Votes are still being counted apace (or not so apace, Nevada). But as the path to victory narrows for President Donald Trump, it becomes increasingly likely that he will soon join history’s bitter club of one-term commanders in chief. Let’s take a look at the other members - presidents who were elected, served one full term, and tried and failed to be reelected.
Some one-term presidents don’t qualify for this distinction. President John Tyler, for example, who took over after the death of President William Henry Harrison before losing reelection, does not count. Neither does President Lyndon B. Johnson, who declined to run for reelection in 1968. Three presidents - James K. Polk, James Buchanan and Rutherford B. Hayes - made and kept promises to serve only one term.
But Trump would join nine other presidents who were rejected by the American voters they’d led for four years.
John Adams, 1797-1801
America’s second president was the first to lose reelection. John Adams is remembered warmly as one of our founders, but his presidency was marred by clashes with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Vice President Thomas Jefferson, France, German-speaking farmers and pretty much anyone who insulted him. In the 1800 presidential election, he came in third behind Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
John Quincy Adams, 1825-1829
There wasn’t another one-term president for nearly 25 years. Amazingly, when it finally happened again, it was John Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams. The younger Adams was one of the most qualified men ever to be president, having previously served as a senator, diplomat and Secretary of State. But the manner in which he won doomed his presidency: He came in second in a four-way race, and the final decision was kicked to Congress. House Speaker Henry Clay was also the man in fourth place - he threw his support to Adams, and Adams was voted president. Then Clay became his secretary of state. The guy in first place, Andrew Jackson, did not appreciate this “corrupt bargain” and spent the next four years vowing to best Adams in a rematch, which he did.
Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841
Martin Van Buren served Jackson faithfully during his eight years in office, first as his secretary of state, then as vice president. He was a natural choice to succeed Jackson in 1837. Unfortunately for Van Buren, the economy crashed a few months into his term. It was more Jackson’s fault than his, but everything Van Buren did to try to make it better made it worse. He was defeated four years later by William Henry Harrison after a truly bananas election.
Franklin Pierce, 1853-1857
Franklin who? Yeah, we really had a president named Franklin Pierce, and he was also somewhat of an unknown to voters when they elected him in 1852. A New Englander who made a lot of concessions to Southerners in the run-up to the Civil War, the whole “Bleeding Kansas” episode happened on his watch. He had every intention of running for reelection, but his own party chose to nominate someone else.
Benjamin Harrison, 1889-1893
Benjamin Harrison was one of the first to become president by losing the popular vote but winning the electoral college, ousting incumbent Grover Cleveland. His presidency was dominated by tariff issues (Trade Wars: Not easy to win!), and four years later he lost to Cleveland, making him the only president to succeed and be succeeded by the same person (or, in more technical terms, Cleveland made a Harrison sandwich).
William Howard Taft, 1909-1913
Like Van Buren, William Howard Taft was the hand-picked successor to a popular president, in this case Teddy Roosevelt. He was a skilled administrator and got a lot of thankless tasks done (Three cheers for the Interstate Commerce Commission!), but he butted heads with the more progressive wing of the Republican Party. In fact, Roosevelt started a new Progressive party and ran against him in 1912. Neither man won. Taft later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which he liked much better, once writing, “I don’t remember that I ever was President.”
Herbert Hoover, 1929-1933
Herbert Hoover often makes it onto “worst presidents” lists, and, man, did he pack a lot of incompetence into a single term. The stock market crashed seven months into his administration, marking the beginning of the Great Depression. Like Van Buren, it wasn’t his fault, but his feckless response made it much worse. By the time he was voted out, millions of people made homeless by the economic collapse were living in shantytowns dubbed “Hoovervilles.” Yikes.
Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981
Despite serving only one term, no one has had a post-presidency as long and active as Jimmy Carter. At 96 and counting, he is both the president with the longest lifespan and the president with the longest post-presidency (nearly 40 years). His presidency was plagued by economic problems and the Iran hostage crisis; his post-presidency has been devoted to human rights, diplomacy and alleviating poverty. He has even published poetry, negotiated for hostage release in North Korea and been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993
Like other one-termers, George H.W. Bush was the successor to a larger-than-life president, Ronald Reagan. His presidency saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, and after a quick victory in the Gulf War in 1991, Bush enjoyed 89 per cent approval rating. But just over a year later, as a recession took its toll, Bush lost the White House to Bill Clinton. Bush also enjoyed a long post-presidency before his death in 2018, during which he occasionally teamed with other ex-presidents for humanitarian campaigns like tsunami relief.