The U.S. Has Never Had 4 Consecutive Two-Term Presidents — But That Could Change
If there’s one thing that supporters of Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden can agree on, it’s that the United States is a divided country.
Yet in spite of this obvious truth, the last three American presidents before Trump — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — were re-elected in spite of our nation’s highly partisan environment. The country may well be divided in terms of political leanings, but the incumbent president is 3-for-3 over the last 24 years when running for a second term.
For that trend to continue, however, a presidential first would have to occur in 2020: If Trump wins, it would be the first time the American electorate has re-elected four consecutive presidents.
Prior to the Clinton-Bush-Obama trio, American voters had only re-elected three consecutive presidents once before: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. The last of the so-called Founding Fathers to be elected president, Monroe’s second term ended in 1825 after a period of relative unity and shared national purpose referred to by historians as the Era of Good Feelings.
That was almost 200 years ago.
Only one other president, Monroe’s successor John Quincy Adams, has had a chance to become the fourth consecutive incumbent.
But like his father John Adams, who lost his bid for a second term to Jefferson, the younger Adams was unable to win a second time, losing to Andrew Jackson. Ironically, Jackson is one of Trump’s favorite presidents.
Before the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limited presidents to two elected terms, the country had a two-decade stretch with just two presidents — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, from 1933 to 1953. Roosevelt was elected to the nation’s highest office a total of four times, but Truman was elected president only once.
By contrast, in the 20 years between the start of William Henry Harrison’s presidency (1841) and Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration (1861), the United States had eight presidents.
George Washington was the unanimous choice for president twice, with the 1796 campaign being the first contested presidential election in the United States. To this day, Washington remains the only president to run unopposed.
A unanimous choice for president? An incumbent president running unopposed? In this day and age, those historical facts seem more like plot elements from some fantasy tale.
Polls look discouraging for Trump at this point, and given the ongoing division in the American electorate and society at large, a series of multiple one-term presidents looks more likely than a total of just four presidents over a 32-year period.
But that remains to be seen, and given the potential for widespread confusion and pandemonium after the election, we may not have a definitive answer for quite some time.