One of the greatest legacies George Washington left the country was knowing when to give up power and retire.
Washington had served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army for eight years and as president of the United States for eight years, stepping down in 1797 at the age of 65. Washington could have become president or even king again if he wanted to. He didn’t. He understood that it was crucial to resign voluntarily and supervise the peaceful transfer. He was willing put his country before his ego. Donald Trump and Joe Biden both put ego before country.
For almost 150 years, Washington set the example for presidents that followed him. Many other countries have political leaders who follow a different course. When a new leader is appointed, it’s usually a reformer who has the support of the majority. Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke his own self-imposed rule and ran for president for four terms, until he was 63 years old. Congress responded with the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which limits a person to two terms as president.
Both Trump and Biden can legally serve only one more term. Just because they are allowed to, does not mean that they should. He could be sent to jail. He has many character flaws that are a turn-off to millions of voters. While he has legitimate grievances against the Clintons, the FBI and the Justice Department for how they have treated (or mistreated) him, he has indisputably made our politics more coarse and divisive.
Biden isn’t facing any criminal charges — at least not yet. This may change if more information is revealed about his son Hunter. Biden’s physical and mental health will continue to deteriorate as he ages. It is becoming increasingly difficult to watch him. Many people are convinced that a vote for Biden is a vote for “President Kamala Harris.” Why are both men reluctant to step down?
If credible candidates were not waiting in the wings, it would be understandable. The Republicans do have several presidential candidates with the political experience, judgement and skills necessary to be a great president. There are more Democrats who would jump in if Biden announced he was only going to serve one term. Biden’s announcement that he will only serve one term would certainly encourage more people to join the race. It’s more to soothe his stolen-election grievances, and get back at Biden. If Trump loses to Biden, as is likely, then the country will be plagued with grievances for several more years and claims of stolen elections. Trump isn’t concerned. He could step down, claim that he had a successful presidential term, and go out as the winner — at least according to his opinion. Especially since most modern presidents’ second terms often become a drag on their legacies.
Lyndon Johnson’s second term (after finishing JFK’s first term) was mired in the Vietnam War and a badly divided Democratic Party. He wisely chose not to run for another term. Watergate, Nixon’s resignation and Richard Nixon’s second tenure brought us Nixon’s second terms. Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency brought us the Iran Contra affair, and public concern about what seemed to be his slowly declining health. Bill Clinton’s second tenure brought the Monica Lewinsky affair. This will be the case if Trump or Biden win. The country already knows it is the right thing to be doing. They only need to convince themselves.
Merrill Mathews is a resident fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation, Dallas, Texas. Follow him
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