This is one of those issues which seems to pop up reliably during the second act of every two term presidency. Should we impose term limits on US Presidents and was the 22nd amendment really a good idea? It’s a concept which has been unofficially in place since the first President and was then enshrined in the constitution in 1951 as a backlash against FDR. Of course, the people most exuberant about the idea tend to be supporters of the current White House occupant and for all the wrong reasons. This cycle is no exception, with Jonathan Zimmerman taking to the pages of the Washington Post’s editorial section to argue that Barack Obama deserves a shot at a third term.
“I think our people are to be safely trusted with their own destiny,” Sen. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) argued in 1947. “We do not need to protect the American people with a prohibition against a president whom they do not wish to elect; and if they wanted to elect him, have we the right to deny them the power?”
It’s time to put that power back where it belongs. When Ronald Reagan was serving his second term, some Republicans briefly floated the idea of removing term limits so he could run again. The effort went nowhere, but it was right on principle. Barack Obama should be allowed to stand for re election just as citizens should be allowed to vote for — or against — him. Anything less diminishes our leaders and ourselves.
Even if you are making the case that term limits shouldn’t apply to the presidency, it should be obvious that it’s a complete non-starter to try to apply it to the current president. The opposition party – in this case the Republicans – are never going to sign on for the 2/3 congressional vote which would be needed. If the opposition holds the White House and the President was popular enough to win back to back elections, you’re not going to risk a third bite at that apple, no matter how far his numbers may be in the tank today. In fact, Congress knew this when they passed the original language, making it non-applicable to the President at the time.
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.
That caveat was one of the arguments being made by Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway, along with a broader complaint against doing away with term limits.
… I’ve got to say that Zimmerman doesn’t make a particularly strong case for repeal of the Amendment. He repeats the standard general arguments against Term Limits that we’ve heard for quite a long time now, and goes on to argue, paradoxically, that the inability to run again in 2016 both increases and decreases Presidential power. In the end, though, it seems clear to me that eight years, or ten years in the case of a Vice-President who succeeds to the Presidency within no more than two years of the end of President’s term, is more than enough time for any one man or woman to serve in the highest office in the land. Indeed, given the extent to which recent Presidents have tended to gather more and more power into the hands of the Executive Branch that is then utilized by their successors, it is perhaps a good thing for the nation that no one person can serve for more than two terms. Indeed, I’ve come to believe that the concept of term limits should be expanded beyond the Presidency and into the House and Senate, but that is a topic for another day.
Part of Zimmerman’s argument seems to be that it’s somehow inherently “wrong” to impose term limits, and I find that to be rather specious on the face of things. The entire idea of having elected officials and the mechanisms for how they are elected and how long they serve are constructs we created by group consensus. We define different lengths of terms for both elected and appointed offices, ranging from two years for House seats to lifetime positions for Supreme Court justices. We can certainly place similar limits on how many terms they serve if that’s what we choose to do.
But beyond that, I tend to agree with George Washington’s original impulses. The office of the presidency has tremendous power in some areas, and as Doug notes, that power has grown significantly since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leaving one person at that particular helm for too long strikes me as troubling because that’s how despots are spawned. And the problem with despots is that even if you manage to find a benevolent one, you’re rarely going to generate two in a row. An infusion of fresh blood and new ideas on a regular basis has to be a generally good thing, even if a few of the individual experiments (read: today) may go off the rails for a while. The 22nd amendment has been in place for more than half a century now and I see no need to upset that apple cart at this point.