“I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president,” President Obama told Diane Sawyer. That is the right attitude, unquestionably. It correctly places responsibility over popularity, accountability over expediency, courage and conviction over cowardice, and generally endorses ethics and duty over unethical considerations.
The statement is admirable, but interestingly, almost completely unrealistic. For historically it has proven virtually impossible for a one-term President to be good, or even successful.
All of the highest-ranked presidents—Washington, Lincoln, Jackson, both Roosevelts, Truman, Reagan…Wilson, if you’re a historian who’s not bothered by his blatant racism and responsibility for World War II—served more than one term, though Truman and Teddy Roosevelt did not quite serve two terms, having achieved their first though the death of their predecessor. Almost all of the lowest-ranked—Buchanan, Pierce, Harding, Carter, Andrew Johnson, Fillmore, Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, Garfield, Hayes, Arthur, John Quincy Adams—served one term or less. J.F.K. is usually ranked highly despite only three years in office, but that is something of an Elvis effect, reflecting his potential and tragic assassination rather than concrete accomplishments.
There is, in fact, only one U.S. President who could accurately be Obama’s model of a “good one-term president,” and that is the peculiar James K. Polk, who achieved all of his stated goals after becoming Chief Executive, retired after one term in office, and promptly died. Even he was arguably more successful than good, starting a divisive war with Mexico to nab its territory, and exacerbating the conflict over slavery while making sure that the United States finally stretched from “sea to shining sea.”
We should all cheer the President’s ethical determination to lead according to what he thinks is best for the country, regardless of what it does to his re-election chances. History tells us, however, that if he is a good president, he will be a two-term president, and if he only serves one term, it will be because he wasn’t good enough.