Most presidents seek reelection — here are the ones who called it quits after one election
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated what state Robert Kennedy was from. He was from New York.
The November midterm elections are fast approaching, and with them the unofficial start of the 2024 presidential election cycle.
Prospective candidates may begin announcing their plans to run for the White House at any time now, or mere days or weeks after Election Day.
Questions have lingered about if President Biden plans to run for reelection given his age and that his approval rating — though improving recently — has remained below 50 percent for the past year. Biden, who is the oldest president the United States has had, would be 82 on Inauguration Day in 2025 if he runs for a second term.
Biden has maintained that, like most first-term commanders in chief, he plans to run for reelection, but historical precedent exists for those who have declined to do so.
Three presidents have completed one full term and declined to run for a second. Three others completed the remainder of their predecessor’s term and then were elected to one in their own right before deciding against running in a second election.
Here are the presidents who have chosen not to stand for a second term in office, from most recent to the earliest case:
Lyndon B. Johnson
President Lyndon B. Johnson was the most recent president to choose not to run for reelection in 1968. Johnson’s presidency, which he had sought to focus on Civil Rights and expanding the social safety net under the “Great Society,” had become consumed by the Vietnam War, fiercely dividing the country.
Johnson ascended to the presidency in 1963 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution limits presidents to serve no more than two full terms or a total of 10 years, so Johnson was eligible for reelection in 1968 to a second four-year term because he served less than two years in finishing Kennedy’s term.
Johnson was widely expected to run and easily win the Democratic nomination in 1968 despite declining approval ratings below 50 percent. Johnson did receive a primary challenge from Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), who ran in opposition to the war.
LBJ narrowly won the New Hampshire primary in March of that year, but McCarthy nearly upset the president with winning more than 40 percent of the vote. Johnson’s competition increased a few days later when Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) announced his candidacy.
Johnson gave a televised address to the country on March 31, 1968, in which he announced he would not seek or accept his party’s nomination for another term, pledging to spend the rest of his administration on efforts to reach an end to the war.
President Harry Truman was the last president who was not term-limited under the 22nd Amendment, with the amendment having been ratified during his administration. Truman completed most of President Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth term after he died in office in 1945 and won a close, upset victory in the 1948 election for his own term.
Truman is considered among the best presidents in recent presidential ranking polls. But as the Korean War lingered in a virtual stalemate and inflation rose, he had poor approval ratings, receiving the lowest recorded approval rating in a Gallup poll in February 1952 at 22 percent.
The president’s name was entered into the New Hampshire primary but finished in second place to Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.). Primaries did not play the role in selecting the eventual nominee that they do today, but the loss was not a positive sign.
President Calvin Coolidge was only the second person to ascend to the presidency upon the death of his predecessor and then be elected to a full term, after Theodore Roosevelt. He was serving as vice president and became president when Warren Harding died in 1923 and won the 1924 election in a landslide victory over his Democratic opponent.
Coolidge’s presidency was defined by the Roaring Twenties, during which business boomed as the country came out of World War I. He was wildly popular among the American people at the time, leading to a great deal of surprise when he announced he did not plan to seek reelection in 1928.
Coolidge never fully explained his reasoning behind deciding against running again, but he wrote in his autobiography that he was ready to be “relieved of the pretensions and delusions of public life,” according to the Miller Center.
Rutherford B. Hayes
President Rutherford Hayes was elected president in the contentious election 1876, becoming the second president to win the presidency through the Electoral College while losing the popular vote.
Hayes had promised during the 1876 campaign to only serve one term while running for office, stating his intention in his letter accepting the Republican nomination, according to the Miller Center.
He was a leader of a faction of the Republican Party that supported reforming the civil service, to have it based on merit instead of political patronage.
Hayes said in his letter that he believed reform could most likely be accomplished by a president who is “under no temptation to use the patronage of his office, to promote his own re-election,” according to his presidential library and museum’s website.
President James Buchanan’s term began as the country was hurdling toward the Civil War. He was elected president in 1856 with a comfortable plurality of the popular vote but failed to receive a majority.
He hoped the issue of slavery on the national level would fade away, saying in his inaugural address that the issue of allowing slavery in new territories was a “matter of but little practical importance,” according to the National Constitution Center.
The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which declared a few days after Buchanan’s inauguration that enslaved Black people were not citizens and therefore did not have the rights of citizens, further divided the country.
Buchanan did little to hold the country together or solve the slavery issue nationally, supporting the popular sovereignty of states to decide whether to allow slavery. It was clear that Buchanan would not be a candidate for reelection by 1860, according to the Constitution Center.
Upon meeting with his successor, Abraham Lincoln, Buchanan allegedly said to him, “My dear sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed,” according to the Library of Congress. Wheatland was the name of his home.
James K. Polk
President James Polk is considered to arguably be one of the most successful one-term presidents at accomplishing their goals. He won a close election in 1844, running on four key platform points and accomplished all four while in office.
Polk oversaw the reduction of tariffs, the reestablishment of an independent U.S. Treasury, the acquisition of California and other southwestern territories from Mexico and a deal to secure control of the Oregon Territory.
He promised to only run for one term during the 1844 campaign and kept his promise four years later. He wrote in his diary that he felt “exceedingly relieved” to be free from public duty, according to the Miller Center.
Updated 8:33 a.m.