Now that George H. W. Bush is part of American history, the question arises whether he should be judged the “best” one term President in American history.
We have had the following 12 one term elected Presidents who finished their term, but were not given a second term:
John Quincy Adams
Martin Van Buren
James K. Polk
Rutherford B. Hayes
William Howard Taft
George H. W. Bush
Eight of them, all but Polk, Pierce, Buchanan, and Hayes were defeated for reelection, with those four choosing not to run, and all of these four, except Polk, very unpopular and aware that they were not wanted to be nominated for another term.
The usual viewpoint has been that James K. Polk, with the acquisition of the American Southwest by war with Mexico, and acquisition of the Pacific Northwest by the Oregon treaty with Great Britain, was the most successful one term President. Labeled an expansionist and an imperialist by many, the fact that he presided over the greatest expansion of US territory since Thomas Jefferson, has helped him to be regarded by scholars as a “successful” President, rated 12 to 14 in scholarly polls.
Now, some are saying that George H. W. Bush may be greater than Polk, due to his foreign policy accomplishments in particular, including the end of the Cold War, the unification of Germany, and the Persian Gulf War, along with his domestic policies of “A Thousand Points Of Light”, and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Some on this list, including Van Buren, Pierce, Buchanan, Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, Taft, and Hoover are seen in a poor light, while J. Q. Adams is seen as not having succeeded in his one term, although a great man, and his father, John Adams, criticized for the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, curbing civil liberties during his term.
The only other one term President who could be seen as competing would be Jimmy Carter, with his Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, the Panama Canal Treaty, his Human Rights advocacy, his creation of new cabinet agencies (Departments of Education, Health And Human Services, Energy), and his exceptional record on the environment, but his negatives, including high inflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Cuban Mariel Boat Lift all help to undermine his case.
So, one could argue that Polk and Bush may be competitive as the “best” one term elected President, without a clear cut answer to the question of who was the better President.
It might be best to say that Polk was the best 19th century one term elected President, while Bush was the best 20th century one term elected President, with Jimmy Carter as the runner up in that regard.