Biden Should Make James K. Polk's One-Term Pledge And 'Make America Normal Again'

Whether you love President Donald Trump or hate him, one thing is indisputable: His  presidency has not been normal.

Bullying tweets at all hours. Cabinet members tossed under the bus. The FBI director fired after apparently rejecting a request for loyalty. A guilty plea by the former national security adviser. Name-calling in the U.N. Security Council. A sitting senator demeaned as a whore. Eliminating regulations that made sure kids aren't poisoned with chemicals. Small water glasses held with two hands.

You may like all those things, but they're not normal.

So that's why my vote in 2020 is clear: James K. Polk. 

Not the 11th president himself, of course. He's been dead for 168 years and probably looks and smells terrible. What I want is a leader who will tap into Polk's enduring legacy: his promise to serve only one term. That pledge provides the only way forward for our nation, which is why I'm backing a different dark horse candidate with a different slogan:

Biden 2020-24: Make America Normal Again.

polk biden James K. Polk (left) could provide a model for Joe R. Biden. Biden photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Maybe you don't like Joe Biden because he's so associated with the last president, who partly begat the backlash that created the current abnormalcy. But Biden is a mainstream, old-school pol who appeals to the broad middle—a new CNN poll shows him with a nearly 60 percent approval rating. And a recent Newsweek analysis showed he could clearly win the Democratic nomination.

Biden would still have an uphill battle to beat Trump, facing the same electoral map that gave Hillary Clinton the coasts, but little else. But a Polkian one-term pledge would transform Biden from a party hack hoping to retire a hated Republican president into an inspiring figure who truly put nation above party. One-term Biden could make the honestly argument that, at his age (77 on Election Day), he has no larger ambition except restoring our key national institutions and then handing off a stronger nation to a successor of either party. 

That's what Polk did, by the way. In a June 12, 1844 letter to his fellow Democrats after winning the party nomination, he specifically cast his one-term pledge as something good for the nation, calling it "the most effective means" to "guard all the interests of our beloved country."

Anyone who has studied Polk—or heard the abridged version by They Might Be Giants—knows he completed four main agenda items in four years and then fulfilled his vow to retire. He left the nation better (well, at least bigger!) than he found it.

So it's time to Biden to pull a Polk. But you don't have to believe me. You can believe actual Polk scholars (who really exist!).

"Polk’s one-term decision liberated him to confront the four major goals he announced for his administration," said Walter Borneman, author of Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. "With no reason to save political capital for re-election, Polk spent it freely to resolve the joint occupation of Oregon with Great Britain; acquire California and the greater expanse of the American Southwest; reduce the federal tariff; and establish an independent treasury. He did all this in just four years."

Borneman added that the one-term pledge itself was so crucial because it not only focused Polk on getting things done, but also functioned as a unifying factor.

"The Democratic Party at that time had lots of factions," he said. "So by saying he'd only serve one term, Polk got his entire party to say, 'Well, let's support him and position ourselves for four years from now.'"

So could it work now? Borneman said the Biden "Return to Normalcy" approach could work if the announced goal was to do the basics, strengthen our institutions, restore the dignity of a presidency debased by endless insults and 140-character broadsides, and avoid paralyzing partisanship.

"Somebody coming in and saying, 'I'm going to do x, y, z in four years' could reduce polarization," said Borneman. "A one-term pledge to fix the mess in a moderate way could work because most Americans agree on 80 percent of the things that need to get done."

Plus, four years is plenty of time to make America normal again.

"Polk seems to have been emboldened, not hindered, by his one-term pledge," wrote historian Tom Chaffin in his book, Met His Every Goal?: James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny. "Indeed, if anything ... the promise added an urgency—and vigor—to his ever-dwindling days in office."

I reached out to Biden but he declined comment (probably waiting for the Draft Polk, er, Biden movement). A source in the former Veep's office said he doesn't want to talk politics.

And as an aside, it doesn't have to be Biden. If any normal Republican, say Senator Susan Collins from Maine, were to take the one-term pledge, I'd get behind her just as easily as I'd support Biden. (I lean towards Biden simply because if a 77-year-old said he only had four years in him, I'd believe him.)

But overall, this idea isn't about President Donald Trump's politics. We've had far more partisan presidents. We've had far more inept ones. And we've even had presidents with worse temperaments than our current leader (looking at you, William Henry Harrison).

Biden 2020-24 is all about restoring normalcy. It’s not normal to publicly call out your own cabinet members (or have one of them call the president "a fucking moron," as Rex Tillerson reportedly did). It’s not normal to tell agencies what words they can and can’t use. It's not normal to appoint judges so unqualified that even senators in your own party feel emboldened to mock them. It's not normal to block the public from seeing White House visitor logs. It's not normal to have an Environmental Protection Agency that ignores the first two words of its name. It’s not normal to blame "both sides" after a white supremacist rams his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters. It's not normal to call neo-Nazis "good people."

And it's also not normal to lie so blatantly and so frequently. A recent review of Trump's public comments by the New York Times found that Trump uttered 103 demonstrable falsehoods (or closer to 1,300 if you accept the Washington Post count, which includes misleading statements) in his first 10 months in office, compared to 18 in the entire eight-year presidency of Barack Obama. And like Obama, George W. Bush stopped telling a particular lie once he was shown to have been mistaken, the Times reported.

That's not normal.

We need a president who will set us back on the right course and hand a normal country to his successor, no matter which party wins the next election after that.

Joe Biden is that man. Make America Normal Again.

Gersh Kuntzman is Breaking News Editor at Newsweek.