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. He could have been president again, or perhaps even king, if he had wanted to be. He didn’t. He knew it was important to step down voluntarily and oversee the peaceful transfer of power. He was willing to put country over ego. Both Donald Trump and President Joe Biden are putting ego over country.
For nearly 150 years, Washington’s example set the pattern for the presidents who followed him. For many other countries, political leaders take a different path. A new leader takes charge, often a reformer with widespread support from the population. But when the end of his legal term in office arrives, he does whatever it takes to remain in power for years, or decades, to come, often being eventually forced out or dying in office.
It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who broke the self-imposed limit and kept running for president until he died in office during his fourth term at the age of 63. 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. But just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.
Trump is facing numerous federal and state criminal and civil charges. He could end up in jail. Plus, he has a number of character issues that turn off 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. But that may change as more information about his son, Hunter, comes out. More to the point, Biden is clearly facing age-related physical and mental health challenges that will only worsen over time. He is increasingly painful to watch. And there is virtually no chance his condition will improve. Which is why so many people are convinced that a vote for Biden is a vote for “President Kamala Harris.”
So why are the two men so reluctant to step aside?
If there were no credible individuals waiting in the wings who could step into the Oval Office, staying the course might be understandable. But the Republicans have a number of presidential candidates who have the experience, judgment and political skills to become an excellent president. And many of them are proposing policies that are similar to Trump’s, so it’s not like there would be a major policy shift.
As for Democrats, there are fewer obvious potential contenders at the moment, apart from the vice president. But certainly more would jump in if Biden were to announce he would only serve one term.
Thus, the only reason that Trump and Biden stay in the race is their own egos.
Even as he divides the country and the Republican Party — which he only joined for good a decade ago — Trump seems determined to run. This is more about soothing his stolen-election grievances and getting back at Biden. But if Trump were to lose to Biden again, which is a strong possibility, the country would suffer through another several years of grievances and stolen-election claims. None of this is good for the country or the GOP, but Trump doesn’t care.
As for Biden, it’s unclear why he is so determined to run again, except for ego. He could step aside, claim he’s had a successful presidency, and go out on top — at least in his view. 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 decided not to run again. Richard Nixon’s second term brought us Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. Ronald Reagan’s second term gave us the Iran-Contra affair and the public’s concern over what appeared to be his gradually declining health. Bill Clinton’s second term brought us the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The point is second terms can tarnish a president’s legacy. That will almost certainly be true if either Trump or Biden wins.
Given their age and various legal and health challenges, there is nothing dishonorable about Trump and Biden deciding not to run again. They don’t have to convince the country it’s the right thing to do — the country knows that. They would only have to convince their egos.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him @MerrillMatthews.
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