(CNN) — For a sitting president, even one approaching 80, to commit to seeking another four-year term seems like a foregone conclusion today.
That is true despite the likely defeat of the Democrats in the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections.
It is true despite the inflation that has Americans bitter about the economy.
It’s true despite the cost another election cycle will have on your family. Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, is a frequent target of the president’s political opponents.
Many Democratic voters are frustrated with Biden’s performance, and a surprising number — 64% of Democratic voters in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll — would like to see a different candidate in 2024.
But it’s not exactly as if other Democrats are challenging him so far.
While it seems almost inconceivable that an incumbent president would step down after one term, it hasn’t always been the case. I spoke with Mark Updegrove, presidential historian and executive director of the LBJ Foundation, about presidents and re-elections.
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited, is below:
Why Presidents Almost Always Run Again
Presidents almost always run for a second term. Why?
UPDEGROVE: You don’t run for president unless you’re extraordinarily competitive and have a healthy ego. Being re-elected is usually part of the general proposal. A second term offers another opportunity to win at the highest level.
Also, you don’t run for president unless you’re ambitious. Four years is relatively fleeting. A president can leave a major mark on the nation and on history in eight years.
What would make someone like Biden reconsider?
Biden is under notable pressure from his fellow Democrats to consider not running for re-election. Should that be enough for him to consider retiring?
UPDEGROVE: No. It has to be your decision. Biden won the presidency and has earned the right to determine for himself whether he runs for a second term.
Are there similarities between Biden and Lyndon B. Johnson?
The most recent exception to the rule of running for re-election is Lyndon B. Johnson. Is there any similarity between what led LBJ to announce that he would no longer be running for president in 1968 and what Biden faces now?
UPDEGROVE: Yes. There is a common misconception that LBJ chose not to run again solely due to the growing controversy and divisions over the war in Vietnam. That may have been part of it, but his main concern was his health.
He had had a near-fatal heart attack in 1955, and his family had a history of fatal heart disease. He didn’t want to put the country through the kind of crisis we had been through with the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919, which left him incapacitated.
As he considers running again, Biden should make the same calculation. The average life expectancy of an American man is 79 years. Biden would be 86 years old at the end of a second term.
And even if he lived through the entirety of a two-term presidency, would he have the physical and mental stamina to deal with the inherent stresses of office?
What other presidents have retired?
Other examples include Harry Truman, Calvin Coolidge, and Teddy Roosevelt. All of them, like LBJ, took on part of the mandate of a president who died in office and then won in his own right. Would Biden essentially be the first one-term president to simply resign if he so chose?
UPDEGROVE: No, in the 1800s, James Polk, James Buchanan, and Rutherford Hayes refused to run for a second term.
But Biden could justify a term given the extraordinary circumstances in which he took office. He took the presidency from Donald Trump as perhaps the only Democrat he could, returning the country to a greater normalcy. That may be enough. In the same way, Trump can still be a threat.
What would a Biden post-presidency look like?
With the exception of Trump, who is about the same age as Biden, most recent presidents were quite young when they left office, have had productive lives after presidencies, and lived into their 90s. What could Biden achieve after the presidency?
UPDEGROVE: Given his advanced age, he won’t have the track that our most recent former presidents have.
Like every living former president except Trump, he likely spent his early years writing his memoirs and laying out the plans for his presidential library.
Afterward, he’ll be in his 80s, so we probably won’t see the kind of post-presidency activist from him that we’ve seen from (Jimmy) Carter, (Bill) Clinton and (Barack) Obama.
How has age affected previous presidencies?
CNN’s John Harwood cleverly writes that Biden’s age is not his problem. But it is what his political opponents cling to in their attacks on him. Has age ever played such an important role in a presidency?
UPDEGROVE: There was widespread concern that Ronald Reagan was too old for the presidency when he ran for re-election at age 73 in 1984. He deflected it during a debate with Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, joking: “I’m not going to blow up, with political ends, the youth and inexperience of my opponent”.
But Reagan lost momentum in his second term, and we now know that he likely suffered from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.