CNN Films’ “President In Waiting,” exploring the history of the American vice presidency, airs Saturday at 9 p.m. ET
American voters usually want a disrupter. Most recent presidents came to town after winning the White House on their first try.
Not Biden. His is a long and winding Washington path that proves persistence, sometimes, pays off.
Already a Beltway veteran, the Delaware senator stumbled out of the race in 1988 after gaffes. He was beaten out of the primary by an ascendant Barack Obama 20 years later and deferred to Hillary Clinton in 2016 after the death of his son Beau. Horror at Trump’s race-baiting brought him, now at a historically advanced age, back in front of voters.
In January, this creature of the Capitol will take an oath to uphold the Constitution for the ninth time since he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, at just 29.
This is not how it usually works.
Consider the four most recent winning presidential candidates before Biden, each of whom ran and won on his first attempt with promises to change the system and the culture of DC:
- Donald Trump had a long career as a real estate developer and reality TV star known for teasing a run, but went all the way the first time he actually did it with promises to “drain the swamp.”
- Barack Obama hadn’t even completed a full Senate term when he rode a message of hope and change past many more experienced and older Democrats and Republicans into the Oval Office.
- George W. Bush came from a presidential pedigree, but he ran out of the Texas governor’s mansion and won, promising to bring honor and dignity back to an Oval Office tarnished by scandal.
- Bill Clinton defied expectations and scandals to win a three-person race as the man from Hope.
In fact, the vast majority of the modern elected presidents won on their first try if you add on Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt (although he had previously lost a bid to be vice president) and Herbert Hoover.
The presidents who didn’t win on their first try in the past century are:
- George H.W. Bush, who came straight to the White House from the vice presidency in 1988 but had run for president in 1980.
- Ronald Reagan, who ran in 1968 and 1976 before finally winning the GOP nomination and the White House in 1980. He had never had a job in DC before coming to the White House.
- Richard Nixon, who served two terms as vice president, lost the presidential election in 1960, then lost a bid to be governor of California and finally came back from political exile to win the White House in 1968.
*Gerald Ford was never elected at all, but was appointed as vice president and then ascended to the White House after Nixon resigned.
“We are trying to do another four years. Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years,” he said at a White House Christmas party.
If there are few presidents who won after losing in previous presidential campaigns, there is exactly one in US history, Grover Cleveland, who won a second term after being removed by voters from the White House.
But there’s one very important difference between Cleveland and Trump, as The New York Times noted recently. Cleveland went 2-1 in White House runs, but he won the popular vote in all three. Trump is 1-1 in White House runs and has won the popular vote in zero.
That won’t stop him from using a political war chest and the sway he retains over a GOP base he’s tried to convince he had a second term stolen from him to dominate the conversation on the right for the next four years.
If Trump did run again in 2024, he’d be 78, the same age Biden is now as the oldest person elected president.
And that raises another interesting question: Will Biden become the first modern president not to seek reelection to a second term?
Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt are both presidents who could have run again but didn’t. (They’d both taken over early in a dead president’s term and then won in their own rights, effectively though not technically serving two terms).
There’s a lesson here for Trump, too. While Coolidge retired and stayed retired, Roosevelt was frustrated by his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, and tried to run again. He only succeeded only in blowing up the GOP and, arguably, handing the election to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.
While Trump launched his reelection campaign immediately upon taking office in 2017, it seems like Biden will wait longer to make a decision.
He’s taken great pains to share the spotlight with his vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, who would become the presumptive Democratic leader if Biden were to not run again.
“The President-elect has been, since the first day he asked me to join him on the ticket, been very clear with me that he wants me to be the first and the last in the room,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper of her access to Biden’s decision-making process on policy matters.
Sitting alongside Harris, Biden told Tapper the two were “simpatico on our philosophy of government and simpatico on how we want to approach these issues we’re facing.”
He added: “So much is going to be incoming, Jake. It’s a matter of who takes what when.”