In 1944, Republican presidential nominee Thomas Dewey said that “four terms, or 16 years, is the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed” and announced his support for a constitutional amendment limiting future presidents to two terms. Dewey, of course, went on to lose to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died a few months into his fourth term.
Some critics — including a history professor writing in The Washington Post recently (“Let’s end term limits,” Washington Forum, Nov. 29 — contend that presidential term limits eat away at voter rights and weaken presidents in their second terms. Americans want their presidents to be decisive and effective, but they also, understandably, fear the potential abuse of power. The 22nd Amendment is a practical if imperfect compromise between the need for energy, decisiveness and leadership in the presidency and the republican principle of rotation in office.
Term limits have a rich heritage. Thomas Jefferson favored them. The idea was supported in various Democratic and Republican party platforms, including the populist-leaning Democratic platform of 1896. In 1927, the Senate passed Progressive Republican Robert La Follette Jr.’s term-limit bill on a bipartisan vote.
For years, polls have shown that two-thirds of Americans favor the 22nd Amendment and enforcing rotation in office. Most Americans understand that term limits are a trade-off for the protection of liberty.
Our constitutional democracy contains an intrinsic tension: The American people are sovereign, yet even they need checks and balances. That’s why we have certain filters: elected representatives rather than pure democracy, the Bill of Rights as a safeguard against majority rule, federalism, three branches of government. The 22nd Amendment is another safeguard.
Some argue that the amendment encourages lame-duck terms. But second terms are always a challenge. James Madison, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman all had troubled second terms before the 22nd Amendment. Even after its introduction, some term-limited presidents have had productive second terms: Ronald Reagan helped enact tax reform and end the Cold War. Bill Clinton balanced the budget and presided over sustained economic growth. Both Reagan and Clinton averaged higher public approval in their second terms.
Echoing Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, some contend that running for re-election promotes accountability and that an “ill effect” of term limits is “a diminution of the inducements to good behavior.” Yet second-term presidents have to think about their behavior if they are concerned about their legacies. Their place in history depends on passing legislation and focusing attention on their priorities.
Our Founders refused to succumb to the cult of indispensability. The principle of rotation is a check against the notion that any single leader is indispensable. It was the assumption of indispensability that led Hugo Chavez to campaign for the end of term limits in Venezuela and Robert Mugabe to rig his tenure in office in Zimbabwe. It led other national liberation leaders such as Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Kim Il Sung and Moammar Gadhafi to become lifers.
The two-term limit encourages fresh ideas and helps prevent the hardening of political arteries. U.S. political parties are rejuvenated by the challenge of nurturing, recruiting and nominating a new team of national leaders at least every eight years.
Americans have high expectations of their presidents, yet the presidency has never been viewed as a job with tenure. Eight years is ample time to launch policies; if these policies are valued and accepted by majorities, they will be continued.
Calvin Coolidge 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.” Presidents, Coolidge said, live “in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment,” putting them in “grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.”
The presidency today is a job of power and responsibilities far beyond anything the Founders could have envisioned. Most of the growth in presidential power cannot be reversed. The 22nd Amendment is a needed check.
Thomas Cronin is a professor of American institutions and leadership at Colorado College.