One-Term US Presidents

List of Incumbent US Presidents Denied ReElection

Timeline of one-term presidents

ThoughtCo / Adrian Mangel

Throughout American history, nearly a dozen one-term presidents who ran for reelection have been denied by voters; only four of them since World War II. The most recent one-term president was Donald Trump, a Republican who lost to Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.

Is four years enough time for new presidents to prove themselves to be commanders in chief worthy of being elected to a second term? Considering the complexity of the congressional legislative process, it can be hard for a president to enact real, visible changes or programs in only four years. As a result, it is easy for challengers, like Clinton, in defeating incumbent George H. W. Bush, to ask Americans, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Who are the other one-term presidents in the history of the United States? Why did voters turn their backs on them? Here's a look at the 10 American presidents who lost their reelection bid after one term in office.

01
of 12

Donald Trump

President Trump Departs White House For Michigan Campaign Rally On Day Of House Impeachment Vote
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Republican Donald J. Trump was the 45th president of the United States, serving from 2017 to 2021. He lost his campaign for reelection in 2020 to Democrat Joe Biden, who had previously served as vice president from 2009 to 2017 under Barack Obama.

Trump lost a contentious election in a deeply divided country. His four years in office were characterized by isolationist international policies, controversy and scandals at home, high turnover among government leadership, a constant battle with the press, an impeachment hearing, and widespread racial tensions.

Though his administration achieved some financial gains in the first years of his term, by 2020 the country faced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression after the COVID-19 world pandemic reached American soil. Heavily criticized for his handling of the pandemic, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, Trump still managed to obtain 47% of the popular vote, signaling strong support among his Republican followers.

02
of 12

George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush
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Republican George H.W. Bush was the 41st president of the United States, serving from 1989 to 1993. He lost a campaign for reelection in 1992 to Democrat William Jefferson Clinton, who went on to serve two full terms.

Bush's official White House biography describes his reelection loss this way: "Despite unprecedented popularity from this military and diplomatic triumph, Bush was unable to withstand discontent at home from a faltering economy, rising violence in inner cities, and continued high deficit spending. In 1992 he lost his bid for reelection to Democrat William Clinton."

03
of 12

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter
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Democrat Jimmy Carter was the 39th president of the United States, serving from 1977 to 1981. He lost a campaign for reelection in 1980 to Republican Ronald Reagan, who went on to serve two full terms.

Carter's White House biography blames several factors for his defeat, not the least of which was the hostage-taking of U. S. embassy staff in Iran, which dominated the news during the last 14 months of Carter's administration. "The consequences of Iran's holding Americans captive, together with continuing inflation at home, contributed to Carter's defeat in 1980. Even then, he continued the difficult negotiations over the hostages."

Iran released the 52 Americans the same day Carter left office.

04
of 12

Gerald Ford

President Gerald Ford
David Hume Kennerly / Hulton Archive

Republican Gerald R. Ford was the 38th president of the United States, serving from 1974 to 1977. He lost a campaign for reelection in 1976 to Democrat Jimmy Carter, who went on to serve one term.

"Ford was confronted with almost insuperable tasks," his White House biography states. "There were the challenges of mastering inflation, reviving a depressed economy, solving chronic energy shortages, and trying to ensure world peace." In the end, he could not overcome those challenges.

In reality, Gerald Ford never even wanted to be president. When President Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, Ford was appointed vice president by Congress. When President Nixon later resigned rather than face impeachment for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Ford—who had never run for the office—ended up serving as president for the remainder of Nixon’s term. “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers,” Ford found himself having to ask the American people.

05
of 12

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover
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Republican Herbert Hoover was the 31st president of the United States, serving from 1929 to 1933. He lost a campaign for reelection in 1932 to Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who went on to serve three full terms.

The stock market crashed within months of Hoover's first election in 1928, and the United States plunged into The Great Depression. Hoover became the scapegoat four years later.

"At the same time he reiterated his view that while people must not suffer from hunger and cold, caring for them must be primarily a local and voluntary responsibility," his biography reads. "His opponents in Congress, who he felt were sabotaging his program for their own political gain, unfairly painted him as a callous and cruel President."

06
of 12

William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft
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Republican William Howard Taft was the 27th president of the United States, serving from 1909 to 1913. He lost a campaign for reelection in 1912 to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who went on to serve two full terms.

"Taft alienated many liberal Republicans who later formed the Progressive Party, by defending the Payne-Aldrich Act which unexpectedly continued high tariff rates," Taft's White House biography reads. "He further antagonized progressives by upholding his secretary of the interior, accused of failing to carry out [former President Theodore] Roosevelt's conservation policies."

When the Republicans nominated Taft for a second term, Roosevelt left the GOP and lead the Progressives, guaranteeing the election of Woodrow Wilson.

07
of 12

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison
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Republican Benjamin Harrison was the 23rd president of the United States, serving from 1889 to 1893. He lost a campaign for reelection in 1892 to Democrat Grover Cleveland, who went on to serve two full terms, though not consecutively.

Harrison's administration suffered politically after a substantial Treasury surplus evaporated, and prosperity seemed about to disappear as well. The 1890 congressional elections swept in Democrats, and Republican leaders decided to abandon Harrison even though he had cooperated with Congress on party legislation, according to his White House biography. His party renominated him in 1892, but he was defeated by Cleveland.

08
of 12

Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland
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*Democrat Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, having served from 1885 to 1889, and 1893 to 1897. So he doesn't technically qualify as a one-term president. But because Cleveland is the only president to serve two non-consecutive four-year terms, he holds an important place in U.S. history, having lost his initial bid for reelection in 1888 to Republican Benjamin Harrison.

"In December 1887 he called on Congress to reduce high protective tariffs," his bio reads. "Told that he had given Republicans an effective issue for the campaign of 1888, he retorted, 'What is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?'"

09
of 12

Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren
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Democrat Martin Van Buren served as the eighth president of the United States, serving from 1837 to 1841. He lost a campaign for reelection in 1840 to Whig William Henry Harrison, who died shortly after taking office.

"Van Buren devoted his inaugural address to a discourse upon the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world. The country was prosperous, but less than three months later the panic of 1837 punctured the prosperity," his White House biography reads.

"Declaring that the panic was due to recklessness in business and overexpansion of credit, Van Buren devoted himself to maintaining the solvency of the national Government." Still, he lost reelection.

10
of 12

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams
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John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States, serving from 1825 to 1829. He lost a campaign for reelection in 1828 to Andrew Jackson after his Jacksonian opponents accused him of corruption and public plunder - "an ordeal," according to his White House biography, "Adams did not easily bear."

11
of 12

John Adams

John Adams
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Federalist John Adams, one of America's Founding Fathers, was the second president of the United States, having served from 1797 to 1801. "In the campaign of 1800 the Republicans were united and effective, the Federalists badly divided," Adams' White House biography reads. Adams lost his reelection campaign in 1800 to Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson.

Don’t feel too sorry for one-term presidents. They get the same nice presidential retirement package as two-term presidents including a yearly pension, a staffed office, and several other allowances and benefits.

In 2016, Congress passed a bill that would have cut the pensions and allowances given to former presidents. However, President Barak Obama, soon to be a former president himself, vetoed the bill

12
of 12

And Perhaps Lyndon Johnson?

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act
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While President Lyndon B. Johnson served for six years, from 1963 to 1969, he could actually be considered a one-term president. Elected as President John F. Kennedy’s vice president in 1960, Johnson became president through succession after Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

Elected to his own first term in 1964, Johnson succeeded in convincing Congress to pass many of his Great Society proposals for sweeping social domestic programs. However, under growing criticism for his handling of the Vietnam War, Johnson stunned the nation with two surprise announcements on March 31, 1968: he would cease all U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and seek a negotiated end to the war, and he would not run for reelection to a second term.

The Longest and Shortest Serving Presidents

By the time the 22nd Amendment had established the current presidential two-term limit in 1951, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt had become the only U.S. president to have served more than two terms. First elected in 1932, and reelected in 1936, 1940 and 1944, Roosevelt served a record 4,222 days in office, guiding America through World War II and the Great Depression, before dying barely four months into his fourth term in office on April 12, 1945. Since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment, presidents—starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower— have been ineligible for election to a third term or for election to a second full term after serving more than two years of a term to which some other person had been elected president.

The more-unfortunate record for the shortest presidential term currently belongs to 9th U.S. President William Henry Harrison, who after being elected in 1840, died of typhoid and pneumonia on April 4, 1841, after only 31 days in office.

Updated by Robert Longley