The Twenty-second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should be retained. It became part of the Constitution on February 27, 1951, after 70 percent of those voting in Congress approved it, and the requisite thirty-six state legislatures ratified it; a handful of additional legislatures ratified it shortly thereafter. The amendment had broad support among the public and the press, including the New York Times. Even President Harry Truman did not oppose it. Since ratification, polls have consistently found that more than two-thirds of the American people favor retaining it.

Among members of Congress to vote in favor of the Twenty-second Amendment was a young John F. Kennedy (D-MA). Asked about this amendment in 1962 when he was president, Kennedy reaffirmed his belief that two terms were enough for any president. Even former president Bill Clinton, who left little doubt about wishing he could have run for a third term, agreed that “we have it for good reasons.” When people are too long in power, Clinton explained, political sclerosis sets in.[1]

The principle of a two-term limit has a rich heritage in this country.  Thomas Jefferson, several other founders, and most of the leading Anti-Federalists favored term limits for the newly proposed U.S. presidency.[2]  Term limits were proposed and approved in some of the state constitutional ratification conventions, most notably at New York’s State Convention in 1788. Democratic President Andrew Jackson initially favored limiting the presidential term to a single four or six-year term to prevent the danger of a despot. But he eventually served two full terms before voluntarily retiring in respect to the by then well-regarded two-term tradition.  The idea was supported in Democratic and Republican national party platforms at various times in the nineteenth century, including the populist-leaning Democratic Party platform of 1896. Progressive Republican Robert M. La Follette (R-WI) introduced a two-term limit measure in 1927, and his U.S. Senate colleagues approved it on a bipartisan 56-26 vote.  La Follette’s resolution, similar to many previously introduced in Congress, declared “that it is the sense of the Senate that the precedent established by Washington and other Presidents of the United States in retiring from the Presidential office after their second term has become by universal concurrence, a part of our republican system of government, and that any departure from this time-honored custom would be unwise, unpatriotic and fraught with peril to our free institutions.”[3]

The Twenty-second Amendment affirms the wisdom in LaFollette’s warning.  There are a number of compelling reasons for retaining the amendment, but here are the four most important.

First, the Twenty-second Amendment codifies longstanding American commitment to the principle of rotation in office for elected executives and helps to protect against their abuse of power.

Ours is a rich tradition of citizen-leaders premised on the belief that a robust constitutional republic needs regularly to generate new, capable, and responsible civic servant-leaders.  The widely accepted Twenty-second Amendment allows a citizen to serve four or eight years in one of the world’s most demanding and consequential political positions, while protecting the country from potential abuses of power that might come from officeholders who overstay their welcome.

The United States has been blessed with many good presidents, but we have also unfortunately had presidents and presidential advisers who have lied to us, misled us, or covered up corruption.  Today’s presidency is a place of great powers, more responsibilities, and even more temptations. Calvin Coolidge put it well in his presidential autobiography when he warned that “it is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion.  They are always surrounded by worshippers.  They are consistently . . .  assured of their greatness.”  Coolidge understood that presidents live in an “artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment” and put them “in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.”[4]

The rotation principle institutionalized in the Twenty-second Amendment is a check against the ultimate type of corruption—the arrogance that an individual leader is indispensable.  It was precisely this assumption of indispensability that led Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to campaign for the end of term limits in his country, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe to rig his staying in office, to the antics of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, to Sukarnoism in Indonesia, and to the schemes of countless other authoritarian “saviors.”  History teaches that the longer leaders are in office, the greater the tendency toward isolation, stagnation, hubris, and abuse of power.[5]

A recent study of comparative government contends that presidential term limits have become a defining feature of constitutional democracies.  Why is this so? “First,” explains Gideon Maltz, “because of manifold incumbency advantages, a long-serving president can all too easily cease to face any real danger of eviction from office.” In addition, “a long tenure leads to a dangerous accumulation of power in the president’s hands, and also a greater arrogance and tendency to abuse it.”[6]

We can learn the same lesson by looking closer to home, at many of the big city mayors who have stayed for third, fourth, and fifth terms. In Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Kansas City, Providence, Syracuse and Washington, D.C., to suggest just a few, multi-term mayors and their associates, especially during their later terms, have often been less responsive, less accountable, and more tempted to become arrogant and corrupt than in their first or even second terms.

The negative impact of the Twenty-second Amendment—namely that it would prevent us from re-electing a great president for a third term—would come into play rarely, perhaps once a century.  Yet the amendment is there, like the option of impeachment, to ensure respect for republican principles, practices and processes, and to guard against an unfettered accumulation of power.

Second, national security and economic issues have resulted in a strengthened national government, especially the presidency and the executive branch.

The American president holds powers today unimaginable even in 1951, when the Twenty-second Amendment was adopted. The twenty-first century president presides over a massive military machine with cyber- and drone technologies easily employed at a moment’s notice by the commander-in-chief.  Nuclear weapons, drones, covert operations, satellite intelligence, extraordinary rendition policies, extraordinary “data mining”, and hundreds of U.S. military bases in as many as seventy nations have reshaped and expanded the powers of the presidency beyond anything the framers of the Constitution could have imagined.

We might not like it—and the framers certainly did not intend it—but the White House has become the world’s ’911.’  This does not mean presidents always get their way.  But presidential responsibilities have grown so large that the American people and the U.S. Congress increasingly turn to presidents for leadership, often delegating wide discretion to them.  In the post 9-11 presidency-centric system, the Twenty-second Amendment becomes an even more indispensable check on presidential power.

Third, presidents have a vast power of appointment, the effects of which often outlast their two terms.

Imagine the consequence on the judicial system if, over three or four terms,  a president could appoint the entire Supreme Court as well as a majority of the federal lower court judges.  Indeed, FDR, who wanted to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, actually did appoint all nine Supreme Court justices before he died in 1945. President George W. Bush, in his eight years, appointed nearly half of the judges in federal district courts around the country. Americans do not want a president who, by packing the judiciary, can in effect control two of our three independent branches of government.

An independent judiciary is necessary for the responsible use of executive power. Important Supreme Court rulings like New York Times V. U.S. (1971), U.S. V. Nixon (1974), Hamdan V. Rumsfeld (2006), and Boumediene V. Bush (2008) might not have occurred without an independent judiciary.

The expansion in the role of administrative and regulatory agencies has made presidential appointive powers increasingly significant. Presidents appoint, subject to Senate confirmation, members of the powerful Federal Reserve Board for fourteen year terms. They also appoint members to crucial regulatory boards such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Communications Commission; these for seven year terms.

Absent the Twenty-second Amendment, a president’s appointive power, combined with presidential influence over appropriations, tax benefits and federal bailouts, can perpetuate one person’s or one party’s dominance.

Finally, the two-term limit is healthy for our two-party system and for democracy.

It helps prevent political stagnation and encourages new ideas and new leaders on the national stage.  The two parties are rejuvenated by the challenge of nurturing, recruiting, and nominating a new team of national leaders at least every eight years.  Elections such as 1952, 1960 or 2008, when no incumbent was running for president, energized both the parties and the electorate and provided the out of office party a reasonable chance to regain the White House.  In this sense, the Twenty-second Amendment helps prevent the hardening of political arteries.  Change every eight years adds a degree of freshness and new energy—elements our Madisonian system of checks and balances can usually use.

Four Rebuttals

Those who advocate repeal of the Twenty-second Amendment are not without plausible talking points.  Here are their chief worries and appropriate rebuttals.

First, repeal proponents contend the ban on third presidential terms diminishes a voter’s right to select their preferred candidate for president.  Moreover, they note, the passage of the Twenty-second Amendment was mainly a retrospective vendetta against Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

True, there were both partisanship and paternalism in the campaign to adopt the Twenty-second Amendment.  Republicans feared another popular Democrat serving another three or four terms. Proponents of the Amendment recognized that it might occasionally prevent voters (presumably for their own good) from choosing someone they believed might be the best candidate.  Yet most people in Congress, the state legislatures, and in the country understood term-limits as a trade-off for the protection of liberty and as a price they were willing to pay for enforcing the principle of rotation in office.

Americans continue to believe that it is a trade-off worth making. A 2003 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Corporation poll found only 20 percent support for changing the Twenty-second Amendment, while 75 percent opposed repealing it. The poll revealed, too, that this issue has ceased to be a partisan issue, with Democrats and Republicans equally opposed to altering the two-term limit.[7]

The citizens of New York also weighed in on their preferences for term limits.  New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg persuaded the New York city council in late 2008 to approve a law extending term limits from two to three terms for both the mayor and city council members. Although Bloomberg was re-elected and was generally well regarded as mayor, a 2012 New York Times poll found that over 70 percent of New Yorkers surveyed nonetheless believed the two-term limit should not have been amended. Only about one in five New Yorkers thought terms limits were a bad idea.[8]

Scholars from James Madison on understand there is an intrinsic tension in a constitutional democracy where simultaneously the people are sovereign yet even the people need to be checked in some ways. That’s why we have a Bill of Rights, federalism, and three branches of government.

Public opinion favoring a two-term tradition for elected executives plainly reflects both the public’s fondness for the idea of rotation in office as well as an ingrained fear that power held for too long may encourage officials to lose touch with the concerns of average voters and may breed abuse of power.

Second, repeal proponents suggest that the Twenty-second Amendment encourages lame duck second terms.

Second terms are always a challenge.  But this was the case well before the passage of the Twenty-second Amendment.  Madison, Grant, Cleveland, Wilson, and Truman, all of whom preceded the Twenty-second Amendment, had troubled second terms.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, post-Twenty-second Amendment presidents can have productive second terms.[9] In their second term, Eisenhower helped to enact the landmark legislation creating the national highway system, Ronald Reagan helped to enact a major tax reform and conducted strategic diplomacy that many people believed helped end the cold war, and Bill Clinton balanced the budget and presided over a sustained period of job creation and economic growth. Both Reagan and Clinton also enjoyed higher public approval ratings in their second terms than their first terms. In short, recent presidents, in spite of being term-limited, have had notable successes in their second terms.

The less happy second terms of Nixon and George W. Bush had little to do with their being limited to two terms. Nixon was brought down by a Watergate scandal that stemmed from misdeeds in his first term and his 1972 reelection campaign, and Bush grew unpopular because of a war he started in his first term. They floundered in their second terms less because they were lame ducks than because of a number of ill-advised decisions in their first term.

Third, advocates of repeal, echoing Hamilton’s famous argument in Federalist No. 72, contend that the opportunity to stand for re-election for third terms promotes accountability. As Hamilton put it, “one ill effect” of a limit on the president’s terms “would be a diminution of the inducements to good behavior.”

The quasi-monarchical Hamilton was prescient on many things, yet on this point he exaggerated. There are in fact plenty of inducements to good behavior or excellence in a second term.  Second-term presidents still want to pass legislation to ensure their priorities will continue and succeed after their eight years are completed. And second-term presidents want their policies and their party to succeed because their place in history depends on this success. Presidents who fail us in their second terms risk being impeached, shamed in the polls, or condemned as ineffective.

Fourth, proponents of repeal contend that someday we may need that tried and tested, wise and experienced leader to continue as our president.  The ban on third terms, they argue, could deny us a proven leader in times of crisis.

Political scientist Larry Sabato has an appropriate riposte to this canard:  “America benefited from Roosevelt’s strong hand as we semi-secretly prepared to enter war, but it is very possible that the impressive, internationalist Republican nominee Wendell Wilkie or an able Democrat of Roosevelt’s stripe could have led the country well, had either been elected in 1940.”  Adds Sabato, “If we can credibly suggest that a presidential giant like FDR was replaceable, then any president is.”[10]   France’s Charles de Gaulle once reminded us that “the cemeteries of the world are filled with people once deemed irreplaceable.”

If a president of the ability, agility and savvy of a Washington, a Lincoln, or an FDR were available at the end of a second term, and if the nation were facing dire emergencies such as Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, or 9/11, the wisdom and counsel of the former president can still be tapped.  Former presidents can be retained as senior counselors, roving ambassadors, or cabinet members without portfolios, in order to take advantage of their experience and expertise. We might recall the example of John Quincy Adams, who after he finished his presidency served admirably in the U.S. House of Representatives for seventeen years.  Former president Jimmy Carter won a Nobel Peace Prize for his post-White House humanitarian leadership, and former president Bill Clinton similarly won acclaim for humanitarian fundraising achievements.

An “Auxiliary Precaution”

Americans want an energetic and effective presidency yet understandably fear the potential abuse of power.  Political scientist Michael Korzi, in his prize-winning history of presidential term limits, concludes that the Twenty-second Amendment strikes a pragmatic balance between our need for “leadership and our suspicions of the temptations of power” and between “the democratic rights of the people and the growing powers of the office.”[11]

Americans have unreasonably high expectations for presidents, yet do not view the presidency as a career job with tenure, but rather as a temporary honor to be exercised with Lincoln-like humility. Eight years should be ample time for a president and administration to launch major policy changes. If such policies are valued, needed, and accepted by majorities, they will likely be honored and continued by succeeding presidents.

The Twenty-second Amendment is, in many ways, the ‘constitutionalizing’ of the two-term tradition—a tradition broken by just one president.  The Amendment can be viewed as a modern “auxiliary precaution” in the finest sense of James Madison’s phrase in the Federalist Papers. It is a practical, if imperfect, compromise between the need for Hamiltonian energy and continuity on the one hand, and republican and democratic principles on the other.[12]

America has been fortunate.  Our founding leaders, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson especially, refused to succumb to a “cult of indispensability.”  Other national liberation leaders (such as Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Kim Il-Sung, or Muammar Gaddafi) viewed themselves as indispensable and deserving life tenure.

Unaccountable royal governors and an out-of-touch monarch helped foment our American Revolution.  Today’s enlarged presidency has become, for understandable and generally valid reasons, a far more powerful institution than was ever imagined back in 1787. Most of this growth in executive power cannot, and should not, be reversed, which makes the Twenty-second Amendment more needed than ever. Kennedy was right: two terms are plenty for any human being.[13]

 


[1] Bill Clinton interview on CNN: Piers Morgan Live, September 25, 2012.  On this occasion, as in earlier interviews, Clinton indicated his interest in modifying the amendment so only consecutive third terms would be prohibited. See Michael J. Korzi, Presidential Term Limits in American History (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2011), 124.

[2] Jefferson initially supported a single seven year term, but he eventually embraced the notion of service for eight years with the public’s rights to remove a president at the end of four years. He admired Washington’s precedent, intentionally followed it, and hoped it would become tradition. Early in his second term, Jefferson presciently wrote that “Perhaps it may beget a disposition to establish it by an amendment of the Constitution.” Jefferson to John Taylor of Caroline, quoted in Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York: Random House, 2012), 409.

[3] Robert M. La Follette, quoted in The Congressional Digest, January 1947, 16.

[4] Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (New York:  Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929), 241.

[5] Hugo Chávez’s story is a classic illustration of this tendency. He was well intentioned and a gifted, empathetic politician. During his first campaign, he pledged to serve for just one term. But he soon linked the success of his “revolution” with his remaining in power. He fought to abolish term limits, won two more reelections, and before his death “bellowed to rallies” of his loyalists that he might serve another twenty or thirty years. See the splendid biography by Rory Carroll, Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela (New York: Penguin, 2013), esp. 271.

[6] Gideon Maltz, “The Case for Presidential Term Limits,” Journal of Democracy 18 (January 2007):131.

[7] Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, June 5, 2003. Retrieved May 22, 2013 from iPoll Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut, www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html.

[8] Michael M. Grynbaum and Marjorie Connelly, “Good Grade for Mayor; Regret Over His 3rd Term,” New York Times, August 20, 2012. The poll was conducted August 10-15, 2012; see http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/08/22/nyregion/22nyc-poll.html?ref=nyregion.

[9] James R.  Hedtke, Lame Duck Presidents–Myth or Reality (Lewiston, NY:  Edwin Mellen Press, 2002).

[10] Larry Sabato, A More Perfect Constitution (New York, Walker, 2007), 87.

[11] Korzi, Presidential Term Limits, 170.

[12] I do not favor term limits for state and national legislators for reasons I have explained elsewhere.  I do not believe that favoring the Twenty-second Amendment and opposing legislative term limits is at all inconsistent.  See Thomas E. Cronin, “Term Limits—A Symptom, Not a Cure,” New York Times, December 23, 1990, E11.

[13] I thank Elliot Mamet, Colorado College ’15 for research assistance.