A contradiction has tugged at American presidential history for 130 years. Donald Trump’s announcement on Tuesday night that he would again seek the highest office threatens to exacerbate this disjuncture in the nation’s self-understanding.
In short: If Trump wins back the White House, we may be even more confused over just how many presidents there have been.
That’s because our nomenclature is misleading. Joe Biden is the 46th president, but just the 45th person to be president.
This numbering lawlessness stems from Grover Cleveland, who was elected, lost re-election and then ran again and won — making him both the 22nd president and the 24th president.
And so one consequence of a second Trump term would be that we are all thrown off a little more: Whoever then succeeded him would be the 48th president, but just the 46th holder of the job.
This quirk is not exactly a matter of national security, but it is worth pausing over, because it relates to the fact that Trump could become only the second president, after Cleveland, to serve nonconsecutive terms. This is a larger and more meaningful distinction. As much as Trump proved his first time around that he was a unique political figure, Cleveland’s presidential precedent might offer clues to what a second Trump term would look like.
“I think once presidents are elected, if they were elected nonconsecutively, they are reacting to much different things than before,” said Michael J. Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and the author of “The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy.”
He added, “And they govern differently.”
But first: Is it really true that Trump, if he won again, would be the 47th president soon after having been the 45th?
Yes. Americans have numbered presidents this way since Cleveland became the 24th president in 1893, eight years after becoming the 22nd and four years after ceding the White House to the 23rd, Benjamin Harrison. The White House website uses this numerology, in which Cleveland is identified as two different presidents. (Similarly, many English-language sources have reported that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will soon become Brazil’s 39th president after serving as its 35th from 2003 to 2010.)
Numbering Cleveland this way derived from early Americans’ practice of referring to presidencies rather than presidents, according to the historian Michael Beschloss.
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“In other words, George Washington presided over ‘the first presidency,’” he said. “The problem is we no longer have that antique way of saying it, so it gets to this odd thing where it sounds like you’re talking about Cleveland being two different people — and Trump, should it come to that.”
This semantic oddness frequently leads to confusing statements. When Barack Obama declared in his first inaugural address, minutes after his swearing-in, that “forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath” — that was, well, not true (the accurate number was 43).
One person who thought this system was ridiculous was Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president. “Why don’t you number all the second terms of other presidents and the third and fourth terms of President Roosevelt, and where will you be?” he once said.
He concluded defiantly, “I am the 32nd president.”
The point can seem pedantic — the equivalent of insisting that the new millennium began on Jan. 1, 2001. There may even be good, or less-bad, reasons for counting as we do. “If we must be slightly inaccurate,” said Alexis Coe, a presidential historian, “I would rather amplify Barack Obama by one person than reduce Benjamin Harrison to a nonentity.”
Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the director of its Presidential Leadership Initiative, said he expected that Trump would be known as both the 45th and 47th president, but he added that “one portrait would suffice.”
Trump has already put himself in rare company as a president running for a third time. Should he win the Republican nomination, he would join figures like Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon (who lost in his first try) as presidents who were major-party nominees three times.
Cleveland — whose wife, Frances, is said to have asked the White House staff upon her first departure to preserve the furniture for her return — is the best comparison for Trump, historians suggested.
Though they were quite different personalities, there are provocative parallels between Trump and Cleveland. The election of 1888 — the one Cleveland lost — produced a rare split between the Electoral College and the popular vote, making him the only president other than Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt to win the popular vote three times. (Trump lost the popular vote twice by significant margins. The Electoral College put him over the top in 2016, but not in 2020.)
“For the three presidential elections that Cleveland was in, the country was very closely divided,” Beschloss said. “If you look at those three elections as showing a phenomenon where the country was divided roughly half-and-half, you might see the same phenomenon with Trump.”
In the four years between his two terms, Cleveland “operated like a Trump of his time in terms of campaigning,” Coe said. He gave nearly a dozen speeches a year as he tried to defy tradition and continue leading his party after defeat — though he did not focus on maligning Harrison.
And Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University, noted archly that unlike Trump in 2020, Cleveland “accepted his loss” in 1888.
In his third bid, Cleveland and the Democratic Party replaced his previous running mate with his former loyal, active assistant postmaster general. Once victorious, he narrowed his inner circle, appointing his former private secretary as secretary of war and his former secretary of state as ambassador to Britain.
It could be argued that Cleveland deserves to be considered as two presidents because of the divergence in how he governed during his two terms.
“Cleveland was quite different as president each time — radically different,” Gerhardt said. “He was overly passive the first time, overly active the second.”
In his first term, from 1885 to 1889, Cleveland failed to marshal Congress behind his chief policy priorities of reducing tariffs and promoting gold-backed currency. (He did set the record for vetoes, with 414, nixing many “private bills” written to benefit individuals.) In his second term, by contrast, Cleveland successfully backed the repeal of a law mandating purchases of silver and, absent Congress’s help, turned to J.P. Morgan to finance money for gold.
“He became much more aggressive and belligerent, almost a distant personality,” Gerhardt said. “He was strong-arming people, trying to intimidate them.”
A signal moment in Cleveland’s second term came in 1894, when he dispatched federal troops to bust up striking railroad workers in Chicago, even over the objections of the Illinois governor, a fellow Democrat. “If it takes the entire Army and Navy of the United States to deliver a postcard in Chicago,” Cleveland said at the time, “that card will be delivered.”
Gerhardt questioned whether having had “four years to sit there thinking about it” during his interregnum influenced Cleveland’s perhaps overly proactive governing style after he returned to the White House. We all might wonder the same about another once and maybe future president.
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