Could We Be in the Era of One Term Presidencies?

As is their unstoppable habit, Twitter users speculated about what would be the straw that breaks the filibuster’s back on Thursday in light of the news that it would apparently not be a vote by Senate Democrats. The Atlantic mused that opposition to the filibuster has now become a core belief in the Democratic Party, with most Dems unwilling to preserve the archaic (yet not really that old) procedure in its current form. On Twitter, the popular view is that Republicans will axe the filibuster – as they already partly did during the Trump administration – when they have a Republican president who is eager to sign an anti-abortion or anti-voting rights bill and they need to get it through a Senate where they don’t have sixty votes.

Republicans were only willing to make a very minor change in the Trump era. The so-called “nuclear option” allowed the nomination of Justice Neil Gorsuch to move through the Senate without a filibuster, essentially stopping Democrats from being able to exercise any power in his confirmation process. That move was big, but it was less than what President Trump wanted, because nearly his entire agenda was blocked by Democrats.

Republicans feared that abandoning the filibuster under Trump would be a fatal folly, though. After all, if by some miracle Trump lost the 2020 election, his Democratic successor could have free reign over Congress. The filibuster keeps Republicans in power even when they are in the minority. The same fear has made some Democrats, including some progressives as well as moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, oppose reforming the filibuster too much: imagine, they say, the Trump administration if the Democrats didn’t have the filibuster to block them.

Of course, one answer to that is that for half of his presidency, Democrats had an actual majority, which would still have been enough to block Trump. Another answer is that Republicans sought to dismantle the health care system in 2017 by reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority, and still couldn’t pull it off.

Either way, it seems – for now – that the parties will gradually eat away at the filibuster, removing it when there’s an urgent piece of legislation to pass (with the tiniest fraction of senators deciding what counts as “urgent”). In the meanwhile, what does this mean for presidencies?

Polls show Donald Trump has a slight advantage over President Joe Biden in the 2024 election, enabled in part by the current administration’s scattered response to the Omicron variant. Other factors that are helping Trump are Biden’s response to Russian aggression against Ukraine (Biden has basically acquiesced to a Russian invasion of Ukraine and is talking up the idea that the U.S. can crush the Russian economy if it invades, which seems to be true but not necessarily effective) and Biden’s failure to deliver on student loan forgiveness, which is costing him with younger voters who, as of January 2022, disapprove of Biden’s job as president 50%-42%. They probably won’t vote for Trump in 2024 – they just might not vote at all.

If Biden is weak to the former president, he’s also likely weak to other potential challengers, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. Biden could step aside – although he appears unlikely to do so – for Vice President Kamala Harris, who might be able to pull an upset. Either way, Biden seems destined to a one-term presidency.

Let’s be clear here: there’s a lot that could change by 2024. If Republicans control the Senate for the second half of Biden’s term and continue to block his domestic agenda, it could galvanize voters to back him (or another Democratic nominee) in the next presidential election. If Democrats somehow capture one or two more Senate seats and are able to maneuver bills around the filibuster, it could give Biden legislative victories he badly needs.

But if the same status quo holds, with Congress in gridlock and the White House immovable, a Republican presidency in 2024 is essentially inevitable.

As is a Democratic presidency in 2028.

It’s important to see how rare the Clinton-Bush-Obama triple two-term presidency run is in the light of history. Before that run began in 1993, the last time three administrations in a row served two full terms was Jefferson-Madison-Monroe, 1801-1825. Otherwise, history is littered with one-term presidents (like George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover), one-and-some presidents (like Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Harry Truman), and less-than-one presidents (like Gerald Ford and Chester A. Arthur).

(Hello, yes, we here at Pyramid recall that Franklin D. Roosevelt exists, who served three-and-some terms; he’s something of an outlier.)

A perpetually gridlocked Congress can fell any forest. Trump couldn’t get legislation through Congress and turned to executive orders (as did his predecessor). He lost in 2020 to Joe Biden, who was able to move two massive bills through (on infrastructure and COVID relief) but then stalled out, probably until at least 2023 but possibly for the rest of his presidency.

His heir will likely suffer, too. If Trump or a Trump-like takes office in 2025, and the Republicans continue to hold the line on the filibuster, they’ll accomplish next-to-nothing, and frustrated voters will put a Democrat in office four years later.

Congress under Republican leader Mitch McConnell deserves credit for taking back its role as an equal branch alongside the imperial presidency. But it has not asserted itself as anything more than a blockade to progress. Believe it or not, other countries get along fine with majority rule, especially majority rule where a constitution protects the rights of the minority like in the United States.

Congress does not lead, it merely keeps the president from leading. That, in turn, could create a revolving door of presidents until the situation changes – and history warns that, if the public starts to clamor for a more powerful executive who can override the legislature, the situation often changes for the worse.