As an example, Barack Obama is quite young (15 years younger than his successor) and was extremely popular. So why doesn't he run for a seat in the Senate? This would theoretically allow him to become the Speaker of the Senate and therefore the third most important man in the US government, unrestricted by any term limits. Even as an ordinary Senator he would have considerable clout and would be able to confront Donald Trump face-to-face on a monthly basis.

Likewise George W. Bush, Clinton and George Bush Senior never attempted to participate in public elections after leaving their position, despite being far from senile. What is the reason behind this?

  • 5
  • 1
    Seems reasonable, I'd be interested to read the answers to such a query. May 9, 2017 at 13:09
  • 1
    Note, this also happens elsewhere, the last 4 sitting Prime Ministers to lose an election have all left politics in the days afterwards. As the PM is drawn from the House of Reps in Australia, 3 of these ex-PMs had to explicitly resign their seat (1 lost the election and their own seat). Term limits and the need to take the seat from someone in your own party likely are NOT the answer.
    – Scott
    May 10, 2017 at 2:46
  • 9
    A quibble, but the US Senate does not have a Speaker.
    – Deolater
    May 10, 2017 at 14:48
  • 1
    @Deolater And the equivalent position (President of the Senate) is held automatically by the Vice President of the U.S. It's the Speaker of the House who is arguably the third (or really probably second) most powerful. Also, the most powerful position in the Senate is probably Majority Party Leader, rather than Speaker/President. And Barack Obama couldn't currently become either Speaker of the House or Majority Party Leader in the Senate without changing parties because his party is presently the minority party in both houses of Congress (and likely to lose even more Senate seats in 2018.)
    – reirab
    May 10, 2017 at 14:55

7 Answers 7


There's several reasons

  1. Courtesy to a colleague - Generally speaking, former Presidents generally refrain from current political commentary. This tends to extend to politics in general, lest they step on their successor's toes in any way

    Bush, however, in his limited public appearances has stayed mute about his successor, maintaining a custom among former presidents that dates back decades. While not all presidents have adhered to the practice, it has created a mostly amicable brotherhood of former presidents. "George W. Bush is a traditionalist," CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen said. "I think he holds to an old-fashioned standard that the presidency is one of the world's greatest fraternities and its members don't criticize each other." After leaving the White House, Bush made it clear that he was finished with the public stage. Although he has been more public since his presidential library opened in April, Bush has maintained that he will not criticize Obama.

  2. Political machines don't last forever. Clinton, for instance, was unable to rebuild the Obama coalition.

  3. Local politics differ greatly from national politics. Bradley Wilson linked this article in a comment, which advocates Obama running for his local House seat, while trying to "nationalize" the 2018 midterms. While I think he could easily win the seat, it's important to note that he failed to successfully campaign for a Democratic House after 2008. It's not clear that he could succeed now, where he has not in the last 4 elections. You would have to sway a LOT of districts to make this happen.

  4. If a former President did win a local political office, would he be happy in a far lesser role? It's harder to go backwards from the top

  • 79
    5. It'd be pretty embarrassing for the ex-President if they lost.
    – ceejayoz
    May 9, 2017 at 15:44
  • 46
    6. Former presidents have a lot of opportunities that weren't available to them before. They can open a presidential library, give paid speeches, or direct philanthropic work. Many of these opportunities are more fulfilling (charity) or more rewarding ($) than public office.
    – A Bailey
    May 9, 2017 at 16:03
  • 6
    Are these reasons or ex post facto justifications?
    – J Doe
    May 9, 2017 at 21:38
  • 45
    I wouldn't be surprised if most or all of them are just plain exhausted to their bones, also. May 9, 2017 at 23:31
  • 15
    @JonathanReez On the other hand, dictators don't have to worry about pesky detractors and balance of power between branches. They can just execute people who disagree with them.
    – reirab
    May 10, 2017 at 15:34

There have only been very few historical exceptions to this pattern, as listed in the answer to a related question on Quora.

This can be interpreted as a tradition of seeing former United States presidents as elder statesmen. There is so much veneration for the office that the appropriate role of former presidents is considered to be above politics. See the definitions of these two key terms in Safire's Political Dictionary for elaboration. Safire gives an example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, with a quote from his wife Eleanor about how he hesitated to run for his third term:

"... he would really like to be in Hyde Park, and the role of elder statesman appealed to him. He thought he would enjoy being in a position to sit back and offer suggestions and criticisms."

Particularly looking at the case of Bill Clinton, one may ask a different question: why would a former president even want to run for lower office? In his role as former president, elder statesman, and philanthropist he makes more money and arguably has about as much power and influence as he could in the Senate.

There might also be political obstacles. Would the voters and the party support a former president's campaign? They may bring political baggage from their time in office, and people might prefer to see fresh faces.


This would theoretically allow him to become the Speaker of the Senate and therefore the third most important man in the US government, unrestricted by any term limits.

There is no Speaker of the Senate. There is either President pro tempore of the Senate or Majority Leader. The general theory is that Barack Obama would not be eligible to be President pro tempore of the Senate, as the only real purpose of the role is to be third in line for the presidency and Obama is no longer eligible to become president.

President pro tempore of the Senate also traditionally goes to the most senior of the majority party's Senators. So some problems:

  1. If Obama were a Senator, he wouldn't be the most senior in his party.
  2. His party isn't in the majority and probably won't be until at least 2020 (they need three seats and only have credible targets for two).
  3. Not eligible to be president anymore, so not much point taking a position that only leads to the presidency.
  4. The President pro tempore is far from being powerful. It's a ceremonial position except for the power that Obama wouldn't have.

Obama would also have some difficulty becoming a Senator. Washington, DC, where he resides, does not have a Senator. So he would have to establish a residency in another state. The most likely candidates would be Maryland, Virginia, or Illinois. But all of those states already have two Senators of his party. Who would he replace?

If he was a Senator, he might aim for Minority Leader in the short term and Majority Leader in the future. But he might also empower Republicans. Currently the nationalization empowers Democrats, as Donald Trump is unpopular. Obama is popular and would likely win any election in which he participated. But if he had a position of power, then Republicans could run against him. And Obama was exceptionally unsuccessful in elections in which he did not participate himself. see 2010, 2014, and 2016. His results were only middling in 2012. Many Republicans are not crazy about Trump, but they united in opposition to Obama.

Similar issues would arise in the House. Even if the Democrats do take control of the House, it's not necessarily so that they would want to elevate Obama to the leadership. They've been angling for their own position for years. Why should he get to cut to the head of the line?

The truth is that Obama has minimal legislative experience. He was a junior Senator who spent about half his term running for president. All his legislative achievements occurred when he was president and they were arranged by his more experienced peers, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, etc. His signature achievement (Obamacare) contained something (individual mandate) that he specifically campaigned against.

We could say similar things about previous candidates:

George W. Bush left office quite unpopular, with a reputation for incompetence. Only executive experience.

Bill Clinton left office with a perjury charge and never won a majority of the vote. Only executive experience.

George H. W. Bush left office unpopular, but more importantly he was rather old and not ready to launch a new career.

Ronald Reagan was even older. Only executive experience

Jimmy Carter was unpopular and with only executive experience.

Gerald Ford could have returned to the House or launched a Senate career. Not sure of obstacles but was tarnished by association with Nixon. Not a great candidate--shot himself in the mouth frequently.

Richard Nixon was all but impeached. Not a great candidate.

Beyond all that, how would it feel to go from the highest office to a lesser one? Some have done it, but it's not that common. And the truth is that the aspects that make for a good president, like executive experience, aren't things that make for a good legislator. Many executives find legislative positions confining. Take Evan Bayh for an example.

What would he accomplish? We have one example of a former president in an elected role. John Quincy Adams was elected to the House. What did he accomplish? I have no idea. He certainly wasn't a national leader.

Andrew Johnson was technically a Senator after being president, but he died a few months into his term.

  • 1
    I didn't know about Adams or Johnson being elected to Congress. Thanks for teaching me something new.
    – A Bailey
    May 9, 2017 at 16:12
  • 3
    It is not clear that the 22nd amendment bars Obama from being president again if he arrives there by succession. The amendment says "[n]o person shall be elected [...] president" in every instance. May 9, 2017 at 16:40
  • 4
    @dmckee, succession past the vice-president is governed by the Presidential Succession Act, not the Constitution, and that states in part "(e) Subsections (a), (b), and (d) of this section shall apply only to such officers as are eligible to the office of President under the Constitution." (Section (b) is the one that specifies the President pro tempore of the Senate is in the line of succession.)
    – Mark
    May 9, 2017 at 22:07
  • 1
    @Mark But is being ineligible to be elected president the same as being ineligible to be the president? Any lawyer worth their salt could argue that simply applies to people who don't meet the age or birth requirements. May 9, 2017 at 22:21
  • 2
    John Quincy Adams actually did accomplish alot. He brought anti-slavery views to the mainstream in the North (including the famous Amistad case), he got the pro-slavery gag-rule repealed, he was important in arranging the Smithsonian donation, and he authored the compromise bill during the Nullification Crisis
    – kingledion
    May 10, 2017 at 22:49

This is a more speculative answer. There are several reasons -

  1. It is a huge step down. Just as CEOs of high profile corporations usually don't usually move onto non-C-level positions, presidents usually don't see a lot of appeal in a lesser role. One goes from being the head of state for the most powerful nation in the world with massive, sweeping discretionary powers and, literally powers of life and death. While presidents are constrained by law and practical policy considerations, they get to pretty much decide what they think is best. To be one of a hundred senators, one of 438 Representatives, or a governor of a state that has to follow the dictates of the federal government would be a huge and frustrating adjustment.
  2. The presidency is a massive grind. Not exactly a reason not to do something less daunting, right? Except that the grind and constant stress of presidency visibly ages all presidents well beyond the years in office. And then there's the constant politicking and fund-raising for their initial campaign, second campaign, for others in the party... and now they're going to go through that miserable, degrading experience of begging for cash and rubbing up against the masses and issuing lame platitudes (though on a lesser scale)..... to be the Mayor of Mooseport? No thank you.

IMDB - Welcome to Mooseport

  1. The presidency, while loaded with perks, pays crap. All ex-presidents, while retaining many of the perks of office, are in demand as six-figure per speech speakers, as multi-million dollar authors, etc. See #2 - most feel they have earned a comfortable retirement.
  2. Politics is nasty business. It hasn't gotten more pleasant over the past few decades. I'd guess most ex-presidents are sick of politics, after serving for several years at its pinnacle of intensity.
  3. Many can do other great things, leveraging their profile and influence. As much of a phony political football as the Clinton Foundation became during the 2016 elections, what Bill Clinton has done, post-presidency, is very impressive in terms of dealing with world issues. Same with Jimmy Carter and Habitat For Humanity (as praise-worthy, but definitely a smaller scale of giving back).
  4. There might be Constitutional constraints. If a president has served two terms, they are ineligible to run for office again. The wording of the 22nd Amendment puts limitations of time and terms serving in the office. Putting oneself in a position where they might be part of the chain of succession might have Constitutional implications.

There are positions of influence within government that can be pursued without the grind of politicking and doing partisan warfare that so many seem to want to avoid after office. William Taft became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after serving as president, so it's not completely unheard of, though, obviously, it's very rare.

  • 1
    Also, Taft's position was one that was largely removed from the other reasons you listed. As Chief Justice, Taft wouldn't have had to deal with #1, #2, or #4 to the same extent as a Senator or Rep would have.
    – A Bailey
    May 9, 2017 at 16:07
  • 2
    As far as #6, they'd probably just be skipped, the same way that anyone ineligible for any other reason (such as birth) is.
    – Bobson
    May 9, 2017 at 16:49
  • 1
    @Bobson - I agree, but since it's completely uncharted territory, I figured I should at least mention it. May 9, 2017 at 17:04
  • @ABailey - Agreed. I think that's why that is the rare occurrence as opposed to actual elected political office. A cabinet appointment might also be something someone might go for, if they were wonkish on a particular subject matter. May 9, 2017 at 17:06
  • 2
    @ABailey - If I were the current president, I'd stay away from an ex-pres as an appointment. A sure way to get one's own judgment and authority questioned or undermined, by the press and departmental employees, even if the appointee was scrupulous about it. May 9, 2017 at 17:40

This is probably just a partial answer, but just a few thoughts.

First, it's actually not unheard of for former Presidents to go back into politics, just uncommon. John Qunicy Adams went to the House of Representatives, Andrew Johnson became a Senator, and William Taft became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Being a retired President can also be a job in and of itself. In fact, the government gives former Presidents an office, a staff, and a pension. At this point, former Presidents can actually make a lot of money writing books and giving speeches. Some, like Bill Clinton, will also do charity work.

It's also rarely the case that they're completely out of politics once they leave office. They will often assist the current President (they retain their security clearance and a Secret Service detail and are allowed to get periodic security briefings, although I haven't been able to locate an "authoritative" source on the latter point). Former Presidents also tend to retain significant influence within their political party (e.g. as superdelegates to their party's convention for Democrats).

One more point: Presidents will often be relatively old when they leave office. Obviously, Barack Obama is an exception, but that's exactly what he is: an exception. Only around 20% of Presidents were in their 40s when they started office, and the median age is around 55 (if I remember correctly). That means that 2 terms would make them 63 when they left, which is close to the usual retirement age. They also usually become President after lengthy careers in politics. It could just be they've had enough at that point, plus being President is as high as you can go; it can be the "crowning achievement" in your career, in effect.


Probably for the same reason Madonna isn't a backup singer for Lady GaGa. But seriously the former President cannot be in line for the Presidency, so no Speaker, or any Secretary position, as a lawyer he also can't become the Attorney General.

  • 4
    It's perfectly possible to have a cabinet secretary who isn't eligible for the presidency. For example, Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, but was ineligible for the presidency because she was only a naturalized citizen. The succession just skips over such people. May 10, 2017 at 17:26
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby Same for Henry Kissinger, too. I think that there have been some people who are technically in line for the Presidency that are under 35, too, right? May 10, 2017 at 20:30
  • 1
    @EJoshuaS some web searching suggests that the youngest cabinet secretary ever was Alexander Hamilton, at 34, so probably not many in the cabinet. Robert Hunter was speaker of the house at age 30 in 1839, but I couldn't easily find if any other speaker of the house has ever been under 35. I would be surprised if a president pro tem of the senate has ever been under 35.
    – phoog
    May 10, 2017 at 21:41
  • @phoog How about the more obscure ones (like Secretary of Transportation or Veterans' Affairs)? (I was going to add HUD to the list of obscure ones, but it became a lot less obscure after Designated Survivor came out). May 10, 2017 at 21:53
  • How about them? The obscure ones are also the newest, so have had fewer opportunities for their leaders to be young. I was searching for "youngest cabinet secretary ever" and the like. In general one doesn't become a cabinet secretary without having acquired a good deal of experience, and it's particularly unlikely for a young person to be appointed to lead a department that concerns veterans. That department has had only 9 secretaries, of whom only one was under 50, being 48 when he assumed the office.
    – phoog
    May 10, 2017 at 22:04

Most likely after serving in a stressful position they do not have any desire to continue politics. So they do not run for any other positions.

  • 2
    Please edit this answer to include supporting evidence, including appropriate references. May 10, 2017 at 17:04

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .