It looks like Joe Biden is looking at every possible gimmick for his presidential run. First there were reports that he’s considering naming a running mate early in the process, which is bad enough. Now it seems he could be pondering a pledge to serve only one term. If he does that, he’s really disqualifying himself as a serious candidate.
This is such a bad idea that, while some people around him may be pushing it, Biden himself “is uneasy with the prospect of pledging up front not to seek re-election, believing that it would make him a lame-duck president before he even takes office and cripple his ability to get anything done.”
He’s right. The presidency is not an office that automatically gives its occupant the power to order everyone around; much of what a president gets done depends on his or her ability to convince others to go along. That’s a lot easier if everyone understands that the president is going to be in office for a while.
Consider judicial appointments. There’s a good chance Republicans will retain a Senate majority even if Democrats win the presidency in 2020. That means the new president will have plenty of difficulty getting votes to confirm judges, given how Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acted the last time a Democrat was in the White House. But there will at least be some incentive for McConnell to compromise if the president is popular and is likely to be around for a while — after all, better to cut a deal that would allow some judges to be confirmed than block them all and risk a very liberal, very young slate for the federal bench if Democrats win a re-election landslide in 2024.
Or take the executive branch. Even if a self-limited Biden could get the nominees of his choice through the Senate, he’s already limiting them to four years at best, and fewer than that as his single term of office goes on. That’s always a problem for second-term presidents, who wind up selecting from an ever-dwindling pool of candidates for prime executive branch positions. At least they have the option, however, of promoting those who have done well at lower-level jobs; in Biden’s hypothetical single term, he doesn’t even get that.
I doubt that the gimmick would actually make much of a difference during either the nomination or the general election campaigns: Those who are inclined to vote for Biden anyway would think a single term is a good idea, and those who aren’t would think it’s silly. But if the pledge is meant as a way to convince people to ignore that Biden would be 78 when he took office, it’s more likely to backfire than not. After all, what Biden is telling us is that he’s okay for now, but would be too old to begin a second term in 2025. That’s not reassuring. If you’re going to act as if age is just a number, better to bluff through it the way Bernie Sanders (who would be 79 on Inauguration Day 2021) is doing than to signal that you are almost, but not quite, too old to do the job.
I think Biden’s approach is probably more realistic than Sanders’. Both are at the age where the chances of at least some kind of decline, including just sheer physical stamina, are very high.
But I suspect that what’s really going on here isn’t as much about age as it is about an appeal to the strain of American political culture that is highly suspicious of politics and finds the idea of a non-political president appealing. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some Biden advisers have tested the idea of a single term and found that voters liked it.
But the notion limiting himself to a single term would free Biden from the need from the demands of politics while he’s in office — or more generally, that elected officials would do the right thing if only politics didn’t get in the way — is both fundamentally wrong and profoundly undemocratic. Political pressure, after all, is just pressure from voters, whether as individuals or organized into groups. Ignoring political pressure means ignoring the people. And while voters certainly can be wrong about things, one of the core ideas of democracy is that what they want should matter.
Indeed, healthy democratic representation requires the cycle of campaigning, election, governing, explaining governing in terms of campaign promises, and then campaigning for re-election. The 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms already breaks that up, but there’s at least an argument that the potential power of the presidency is so awesome that we should limit the ability of anyone to keep it for a long time and reduce the chances anyone will use the office to upend constitutional government. Whatever the merits of the two-term limit, pledging to serve only a single term is a very bad idea. If Biden really feels the need to do it, either to get elected or because he thinks he’ll be too old by 2025, he should end his candidacy right now.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University