Why Joe Biden should pledge to serve just one term

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Now more than ever, America needs the out-party national ticket – Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his running mate – to pledge not to seek elected office in 2024. At this writing, polling data point to Biden handily winning the election, along with likely Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Thus, our proposal is not mere academic rumination.

Why is this pledge critical now?

The next four years could be America’s last best chance to prove Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was right. His 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech rested on his faith in America. He could have lost faith. He could have instead described a nightmare. Many wanted him to. But he chose instead a glorious vision “deeply rooted in the American dream.”

This dream centered on his reference to the American ideal that “all men are created equal” — a radical idea in 1776. In King’s usage, it meant “all people are created equal.” Yet as history shows, knowing the right thing to do is the easy part of change. The hard part has been knowing how to do the right thing.                         

Will Democrats sweeping in November guarantee the change needed?     

Shortly after the Civil War, Republicans double-crossed their most loyal supporters. In 1877, Republicans stole the White House from Northern Democrat Samuel Tilden by agreeing to allow white supremacist Dixie Democrats to replace constitutionally protected segregation for the outlawed slavery.

America waited 86 years for a president to declare segregation a toxic immorality. But it took John F. Kennedy’s assassination before Congress finally acted on his commitment to end legal segregation and then start funding Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.”

Yet by 1968, the unpopular war in Vietnam ended the Great Society push. Between 1968 and 2004, only two Democrats won the White House. Both promised to complete the Kennedy-Johnson legacy. Jimmy Carter couldn’t unite his party behind a common vision. Bill Clinton, his eye on re-election, agreed to a crime bill that he now admits targeted minorities.

Many hailed Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as guaranteeing the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. But the new president knew better. The country suffered from the Great Recession. Despite Democratic congressional majorities, President Obama had to use all of his initial political capital to get legislation reviving the battered economy and basic health care for those long denied. After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans, determined to block every Obama initiative, regained control of the House and constrained his ambitious agenda. 

The challenges for a Biden administration would be greater than those encountered by these Democratic predecessors. America faces her worst pandemic virus in 100 years; the biggest economic collapse in 80 years; the largest sustained nation-wide street protests in 52 years. The synergy of this trifecta is not likely to materially wane by Inauguration Day.

King understood that his dream required economic fairness. He wisely rejected defining fairness as a zero-sum game where for one to win, another must lose. His rising tide of togetherness was geared to lift all in need.   

COVID-19 exposed the astounding number of Americans living one paycheck away from bankruptcy. Minorities have suffered by far the worst. But the larger truth is this: Our market-based system works too well for the few and too poorly for too many of all races. Yet we cannot simply tax ourselves to equitable prosperity any more than we can borrow and spend our way to a fair and just society.

Each of us sees the terms “fairness,” “equitable,” “equal” and related phrases through our own eyes. We are wired to act out of self-interest. Atonement, though, like everything, will come with a price tag.

Marshaling public support behind the right definition of fair and equitable will require far greater levels of public trust in government than have existed in several generations. Thus, our call for the Biden ticket to take a one-term pledge. The same for their top appointees. In addition, Biden should announce rules eliminating even the appearance of financial self-interest for those involved in forthcoming economic policies.

Public trust is hard to achieve but easy to lose, especially now in our 24/7 digital disinformation age. Public perceptions of political ambition and financial self-interest have long undercut efforts to achieve Dr. King’s dream. However unfair, if elected, Joe Biden will inherit it all. Given this reality, we believe the one-term pledge offers the best hope to address those perceptions. 

“To whom much is given, much is required,” declared President Kennedy. Especially now.

Paul Goldman is former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author of “Federalism: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Dr. Martin Luther King Jr I Have a Dream Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign race relations
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