There’s a big problem if Joe Biden only wants to serve one term as president
Former Vice President Joe Biden, photo by Marc Nozell

Former Vice President Joe Biden may intend to only serve one term if elected president in 2020, a new report from Politico found on Wednesday.


The idea of eschewing a second term had previously buzzed around the campaign, as well as the related notion that Biden could announce a one-term pledge. But according to Politico, Biden is currently against the “pledge” and is instead only saying privately that he “will almost certainly not run for a second term.”

If this is true, it’s a huge mistake.

Back in 2008, the Atlantic reported that former presidential candidate John McCain had weighed the idea of making a one-term pledge. It seems it’s an appealing idea for older candidates. McCain, at the time, was 71. Biden is 77.

McCain ultimately decided against it. The Atlantic laid out some of the costs and benefits that his team considered at the time:

Campaign advisers said that, as they discussed the merits of the pledge, the drawbacks were obvious: it might tie McCain’s hand with Congress. It would certainly raise the profile of his heir apparent and vice presidential nominee, who would be treated as a de-facto presidential candidate for McCain’s entire term. And it would draw attention to his age.

But at the time, the benefits were judged to be equally as powerful: his finance team loved it; it would call more attention to the political opportunism of his opponents, Republicans and Democrats. It would free him from having to spend the last two years of his presidency running for re-election; it would send an unmistakable message that McCain intended to be a different kind of president. One Republican close to the campaign said: “It would have been the most selfless act in modern American politics.”

But regardless of what the considerations were for the Republican candidate in 2008, there’s one decisive reason for a Democratic candidate to jettison the idea now.

If, in 2024, Democrats run an incumbent president to keep control of the White House, the historical record suggests that they would have about a 2/3rds chance of winning re-election, according to political scientist David Mayhew. If they run a non-incumbent candidate in 2024, their chances fall to about dead even — 50-50.

So by running now without the intention of not running in 2024, Biden would be denying his party the possibility of having a major advantage at winning the next presidential election. That should give any Democrat considering voting for Biden, and anyone advising him, reason to choose another candidate.

One objection to this argument might be that Biden is so well-positioned to win in 2020 against Trump that he increases his party’s chance of winning now, thus canceling out the costs he’d bring to the party by not running in 2024. But that assumes that he has a major leg up on his competitors, and it’s not clear that this is true. Recent polling shows Biden up 9 points over Trump in the general election, with Bernie up 8 points and Warren up 7. These are not major differences at this point in the race.

And if Biden made a one-term pledge, or even if it became widely believed that he would be unlikely to run for a second term, this could seriously harm his 2020 candidacy. As the McCain team noted in 2008, the pledge would emphasize the candidate’s age, which is already a factor that concerns many Biden observers. That may hurt him more than any advantage he has over his closest competitors.

It’s unlikely that Biden will be able to skirt the issue in the weeks and months ahead. With a story like this coming out now, he’ll inevitably be asked about his 2024 intentions. Any hedging will seem like an admission that the story is true.

And despite what McCain’s advisers thought in 2008, I think the pledge or the intention to only serve one term would be the opposite of “selfless act.” It would show that, even though he’s not up to the eight-year task that the presidency is assumed to be, and despite the fact that only serving one term would disadvantage his party, Biden was still desperate to be president. He wants the title, prestige, and place in the history books that is denied to those who served merely as vice president. And if he hurts his party or is relatively unable to get work done with Congress during his term because he plans on having a truncated presidency, so be it.

Voters shouldn’t accept this, and they shouldn’t have to accept it. The presidency is an eight-year job, even if you can be thrown out halfway through. If Biden doesn’t think he’s up to serving the whole eight years, then he should just drop out now.